(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Briefing: The response to Cyclone Idai

    Nearly a week since Cyclone Idai struck three of the most vulnerable countries in Southern Africa, needs are rising and humanitarians still don’t have a full picture of the extent of the disaster. Aid access is one of the biggest challenges and cholera is a major concern.

     

    More than a million people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have been affected by what the UN called a “massive disaster”. Its emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said “the situation is likely to deteriorate, and the number of people affected is likely to increase”.

     

    Mozambique was the first country hit. Some reports estimate 90 percent of Beira, the fourth largest city, with more than 500,000 residents, may be damaged or destroyed. But Médecins Sans Frontières said “it’s still too early” to have a complete overview of the situation as many areas remain cut off and inaccessible by road. Rain and heavy winds continue, so reaching certain areas by air or sea is a challenge. The storm also destroyed most of Beira’s telecoms infrastructure, making it difficult to get word out of the affected areas.

     

    “I am able to say that all health centres and hospitals have been affected,” said Caroline Rose, MSF’s head of mission in Mozambique, expressing concern about the growing health needs, especially the risk of waterborne diseases, including cholera. “Several health centres have lost their roofs and are in very, very bad condition.”

     

    In neighbouring Zimbabwe, “the situation we are seeing now isn’t fully clear,” agreed Mildred Makore, Mercy Corps director of programmes in the country. “Chimanimani, which is the worst-hit district, is still inaccessible. Evaluations are going on… and we may be overwhelmed when we have true access.”



    Here’s a round-up of what we know about the humanitarian needs and response.

    What is the scale of the disaster?

     

    Late on 14 March, Cyclone Idai made landfall off the coast of Mozambique, before continuing to Zimbabwe and Malawi, causing widespread devastation across parts of the three countries.

     

    The scale of damage in Mozambique is “massive and horrifying”, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said. Tens of thousands lost their homes; roads, bridges, and crops were washed away; and people remain trapped on roofs awaiting rescue as parts of Beira are still under water.

     

    More than 100,000 people needed emergency evacuation in Beira and surrounding areas in Buzi District. Although the official death toll is just over 200, Mozambique’s president estimated more than 1,000 people may have been killed. So far, 1,500 are injured and 17,000 displaced.

     

    In Zimbabwe, floods destroyed 600 homes, affecting an estimated 15,000 people. So far, more than 100 people have been reported dead, 200 are injured, and another 200 are still missing.

     

    Malawi has reported 57 dead and more than 500 injured. More than 94,000 people are estimated to have been displaced and some 840,000 people have been affected, according to the government.

     

    Although water levels have subsided a bit in Zimbabwe and Malawi, flooding continues in Mozambique and hundreds of thousands remain at risk. There are also growing concerns about the overflow of the Marowanyati Dam in Zimbabwe, which threatens to increase water levels in Mozambique.

     

    Heavy rain and flooding before the cyclone hit had claimed more than 120 lives and affected 1.5 million people in the region, the UN said. Malawi and Mozambique are both prone to extreme weather events, such as the floods that left hundreds dead in both countries in 2015. While parts of Zimbabwe are under water, other parts are in the midst of El Niño-induced drought, which has caused a severe food crisis.

     

    How were people impacted?

     

    The World Food Programme estimates that 1.7 million people in Mozambique alone were along the path of the cyclone when it hit.

     

    MSF described the scene as “destruction – and a lot of water”, saying that electricity, telecommunication lines, and main roads leading into Beira remain cut off, with houses and buildings submerged, and hospitals severely damaged.

     

    Search and rescue operations are continuing, but many people remain unreachable. Those who made it out of affected areas are living informally in schools, churches, or sometimes just out in the open, where they face the risk of respiratory infections and other diseases. With people exposed to the elements “all the small problems will become big problems”, MSF’s Rose said.

     

    In Nsanje, one of Malawi’s worst-hit districts, “houses fell down completely or partially, and a lot of toilets and kitchens went down,” said Ilse Casteels, MSF’s head of mission in the country. “Because of the floods people moved to higher areas, regrouping in churches and centres and schools. For the moment there are a lot of families staying there,” she said, even though some people have returned home to start rebuilding as the flood waters recede.

     

    In Malawi and Zimbabwe, people lost their homes but also their livelihoods when the floods destroyed their crops. Many of those affected in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands are small-scale farmers, Mercy Corps’ Makore said. As a result worsening food security will be a major concern in the months ahead.

     

    An estimated “200,000 are in need of urgent food assistance for the next three months in Zimbabwe,” the WFP said, with Chimanimani the hardest hit.

     

    Who is responding?

     

    UN agencies, local and international aid organisations, and foreign countries have intervened or sent funds to assist the humanitarian response. Many others are in the process of raising donations.

     

    The WFP aims to provide food assistance to some 600,000 people in Mozambique and 650,000 people in Malawi. MSF is providing emergency medical care in affected regions and, in Mozambique and Malawi, it has prioritised continuity of care for vulnerable HIV and tuberculosis patients who were being treated before the disaster struck.

     

    In Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district, where severe flooding wiped out roads and bridges and left the area accessible only by helicopter, the International Rescue Committee has set up a mobile clinic and is distributing food and specialised kits for women. Mercy Corps has been focusing on water, hygiene, and sanitation services.

     

    In Mozambique, the Indian Navy and the South African Air Force have been assisting the government’s search and rescue operation. Meanwhile, aid organisations are estimating a long road to recovery.

     

    The World Health Organization is sending three months’ of supplies for 10,000 people. CARE is working with the government of Mozambique to provide seeds and livestock to replenish farms that have been decimated by flooding.

     

    The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, known as CERF, has allocated $20 million to ramp up the humanitarian response across the three countries. The UK is donating almost $24 million, the EU close to $4 million, and the African Union $350,000. Tanzania said it was sending urgent relief supplies, including tonnes of medicine and food.

     

    What are the humanitarian needs/gaps?

     

    Access to potable drinking water, shelter, food, and healthcare are the priorities, aid groups say, with water, sanitation, and hygiene needs particularly urgent as the risk of waterborne diseases is the major concern across the board.

     

    “In Beira, we fear a huge cholera outbreak soon,” said MSF’s Rose. “The main challenges will be [getting treatment] for people who don’t understand they have cholera, and that it’s urgent, or people who are not reachable, or people who cannot reach health centres.”

     

    Given that areas are still cut off, this is a real concern. To mitigate the challenges, MSF will attempt a “decentralised system with small cholera centres in many zones,” Rose said. “We cannot ask people to go to big centres. We will have to be in the communities where they are.”

     

    Zimbabwe has been in the midst of a cholera outbreak since last year. Mercy Corps, which has been assisting with the response, is concerned that recent events will worsen the crisis.

     

    “Our major concern is that the water bodies have been contaminated, because the latrines have been destroyed,” Makore said. “We are concerned because there can be an ensuing disaster following that, related to the waterborne diseases,” including cholera and typhoid, as well as malaria. 

     

    “We have to make sure the affected population has access to clean water,” she said, adding that a lot more support is required to help those affected in Zimbabwe - from immediate lifesaving aid to longer-term support for communities who will need to rebuild.

     

    In Malawi, MSF’s Casteels said the most urgent need is clean, potable water, after many boreholes were affected by the flooding. She also expressed concern about cholera and malaria spreading in the coming weeks.

    “The biggest concern that you hear is about food. Access to food now, but also in the future. People are really afraid crops are affected. And because the country is so dependent on agriculture, that’s a big concern.”

    What are the longer-term issues?

     

    Mercy Corps’ Makore said the priority should be resilience-building for affected communities.

     

    “Contextually, for Zimbabwe right now, we have got two natural disasters at the same time. The El Niño-induced drought and now this [flooding]... Whatever produce was available was washed away, and livestock was also washed away,” she said.

     

    “Right now, we need to speak about food security, which was already an issue, but now we need to think beyond that because of the potential for disease outbreaks, shelter concerns, displacement. So I think we have a huge task ahead of us as organisations.”

     

    In Malawi, Casteels raised similar concerns. “The biggest concern that you hear is about food,” she said. “Access to food now, but also in the future. People are really afraid crops are affected. And because the country is so dependent on agriculture, that’s a big concern.”

     

    Based on the aftermath of previous disasters that have affected Mozambique, MSF’s Rose said: “it will take years to rebuild the town [of Beira]”.

     

    “This will have the worst impact on those most vulnerable,” she said. “It’s those who have small, fragile houses that are worst impacted, as they are always the people without the means to build a new house. So it’s a vicious cycle. Those who have no means to rebuild will be left outside with no house, more at risk of disease and worse off."

     

    "The situation is already complicated and it will continue to be, especially for the most vulnerable,” she said.

     

    In Zimbabwe, already confronted by a host of humanitarian, economic, and political challenges, Cyclone Idai has only made the outlook more bleak. “The priority is to help get people back on track and restore some level of dignity and hope,” said Makore.

     

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    “The situation is likely to deteriorate, and the number of people affected is likely to increase”
    Briefing: The response to Cyclone Idai
  • UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

    Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.

     

    Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.

     

    The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.

     

    “The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.

     

    Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.

     

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.

     

    Stalled promises

     

    The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.

     

    In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.

     

    Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.

     

    After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.

     

    Finding the missing

     

    Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.

     

    Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.

     

    But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.

     

    Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”

     

    Transitional justice

     

    Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.

     

    The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.

     

    There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

     

    But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.

     

    Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.

     

    “We have nothing to atone for”

     

    When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

    "The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

    But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.

     

    “The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.

     

    Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.

     

    Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

     

    “The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

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    UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity
  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.

     

    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.

     

    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.

     

    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.

     

    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.

     

    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

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    Ruairi Casey/IRIN
    Wreckage from the 1975-1991 Saharan war sits outside a museum in the camps.

    MINURSO

     

    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.

     

    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”

     

    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.

     

    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.

     

    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.

     

    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”

     

    Future of talks

     

    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.

     

    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.

     

    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.

     

    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.

     

    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.

     

    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)

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    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • Afghans battle with flood aftermath

    Besieged by months of drought and long-term conflict, rural communities in large swathes of Afghanistan are facing yet another emergency: widespread flooding that will leave some rebuilding their lives for years.

     

    Sudden heavy rainfall this month triggered flash floods that swept away thousands of homes and killed dozens in nine Afghan provinces.

     

    More than 112,000 people are affected, with numbers rising as humanitarian assessments trickle in from insecure areas, according to tallies by UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Afghanistan is seeing unusually heavy rainfall due to the El Niño weather phenomenon declared in February, which can bring extreme weather across the globe. Forecasts predict there could be warmer temperatures and 40 to 50 percent more rain than usual into May, according to the Red Cross. Months of severe drought also make it harder for soil to absorb excess water, raising the risk of sudden floods.

     

    In hard-hit Nawa-i-Barakzai district in the southern province of Helmand, communities were still waiting for help – and fearing a fresh onslaught of rain – amid destroyed mud homes and dead livestock.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Ali Mohammed searches for the remains of his animals, which were crushed when his stable’s roof collapsed during heavy rains this month. Many residents in the area lost everything during the floods.

     

    In one flattened village, Ali Mohammed, 42, stood on his collapsed roof, the smell of rotting flesh seeping through the mud that used to form the walls of his house.

     

    “It’s my sheep,” he said, pointing to a crack that exposed parts of the dead animals, killed in the floods.

     

    The rains started at night. Mohammed said he and his neighbours rushed to wake their families as the waters from a nearby river rapidly rose and heavy downpours started to tear apart rooftops.

     

    They scrambled to higher ground. But when the waters receded hours later the entire village had been washed away – along with a lifetime of hard work and savings.

     

    The rains came and went quickly, but the aftermath is likely to last years for farmers like Mohammed. He said his personal losses, including dozens of sheep and his entire food supply, totalled a steep 900,000 Afghani, or $12,000. His wife packed a few remaining belongings and took the family’s children to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkargah.

     

    “We didn’t think it could be this bad,” he said.

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    A man walks among destroyed homes
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Locals say the floods affected some 3,000 families in Nawa-i-Barakzai district, and many of the worst-hit farming families had little to begin with.

    Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, have also been hit by floods. In Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, which shares a border with Helmand, aid agencies are warning of disease outbreaks due to damaged health clinics, low vaccination rates, and health conditions already worsened by drought.

     

    Here in Helmand, traditionally a Taliban heartland, the latest disaster is exacerbated by widespread poverty and active conflict. Government-controlled Nawa-i-Barakzai borders one of the war’s front lines, and the district has seen a rise in clashes and killings in recent weeks.

     

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A boy watches his family’s remaining sheep after most were killed in the flood. Blue tarps offer temporary shelter to the family.

    The district governor, Ayub Omar Omari, believes the floods are evidence of a changing climate.

     

    “We’ve had a bad drought, followed by the worst floods I’ve seen here in decades,” he said. “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away.”

     

    Few structures are left standing in areas far from the bigger markets and paved roads, where fragile mud homes are prevalent. Most families have fled, finding refuge with relatives in nearby towns. Those who stayed behind continue to sort through debris, hoping to recover what remains of their belongings.

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    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Haji Badar sorts through what’s left of his home and belongings. He estimates his total losses, including 13 sheep, to be the equivalent of about $4,000 – a substantial sum in rural Afghanistan.

     

    “It’s not safe for my family to stay outside, but we have little option,” said Haji Badar, 75. He stood surrounded by his daughters on a muddy plateau – his house has literally melted away.

     

    “We’re hoping for help, but none has come yet,” he said, two weeks after the initial rains.

     

    The sky is blue for now, but Badar fears what will come: “Our wettest season has just started.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A boy sits on his bed in Nawa-i-Barakzai district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Heavy rains and floods destroyed his home, forcing his entire family to sleep outside. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)

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    “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away”
    Afghans battle with flood aftermath
  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

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    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border

    Since last month’s failed attempt to force foreign aid into Venezuela resulted in the closing of the border, aid workers in Colombia say conditions have deteriorated for Venezuelans – both those fleeing and those staying behind in frontier towns now largely cut off from assistance.

     

    “The political crisis has made the humanitarian crisis worse,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Catholic priest who heads a local NGO called CONSORC that provides support to a growing number of vulnerable Venezuelans in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta.

     

    Some 3.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s economic collapse since 2015, many of them across the two bridges that connect the Venezuelan city of San Antonio del Táchira with Cúcuta.

     

    Colombian Red Cross workers stationed at the Simón Bolívar bridge were overwhelmed when IRIN visited. There were hundreds of Venezuelans waiting for basic medicine and examinations. A Venezuelan with heavily bandaged feet was being rolled on a stretcher to a nearby ambulance.

     

    Read more: Why Venezuelan migrants need to be regarded as refugees

     

    Last month, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly who has been recognised as interim Venezuelan president by more than 50 countries around the world, invited in humanitarian assistance from the United States and elsewhere. But President Nicolás Maduro cast aside outside offers, framing them as a prelude to a foreign invasion.

     

    The showdown came to a head on 23 February. Although two pickup trucks of aid, amid deadly skirmishes, did pierce the Brazilian border, the blockade held firm. And while some security personnel did defect, they didn’t revolt en masse and bring down the Maduro regime.

     

    Having returned to Caracas from Cúcuta, Guaidó now finds himself accused of sabotaging the national power grid, which went down for much of the past week, depriving Venezuelans of electricity, pumped water, and, in many places, means of communication.

     

    “What is really a social problem – a problem of hunger, of sickness and of medical emergency – is being adversely affected by political jockeying,” said Rodriguez, who noted an increase in the numbers of Venezuelans crossing into Cúcuta despite the closed border.

    waiting_for_a_meal_copy_1920.jpg

    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Venezuelans wait for lunch at "Amigos del Projimo" – a kitchen charity that provides free meals near the Simón Bolívar bridge in Cúcuta.

    The trochas

     

    Colombian immigration officials estimated before the border closure that 35,000 Venezuelans crossed the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges into Cúcuta daily for work, trade, school, or medical care, with the majority returning home before nightfall.

     

    With the border closed – apart from limited openings on certain days for school or medical care for some children with documentation – Venezuelans have increasingly been flocking to more dangerous routes: the network of clandestine trails called trochas that weave their way between Cúcuta and its sister Venezuelan cities of San Antonio and Ureña.

     

    In the region around Cúcuta, the trochas are controlled primarily by three groups: paramilitary forces loyal to Maduro called the colectivos; Colombian ELN guerrillas; and the Bacrin narcotrafficking group, which uses them to smuggle cocaine through Venezuela.

     

    The trochas are also a major smuggling corridor for other goods. Gasoline is transported from Venezuela – where it is effectively free – to be sold in Colombia, while food and basic hygiene items go the other way for large profits. The gangs who control the trochas charge 2,000 pesos (about 65 cents) to cross, with higher fees for those transporting goods.

     

    The trochas are usually safe for migrants, but there have been some reports of violence as well as instances of criminals preying upon the particularly vulnerable. The number of Venezuelans crossing has become impossible to monitor.

     

    ‘We can no longer enter’

     

    Over the years, this informal cross-border trade has left many Venezuelans in San Antonio and Ureña economically dependent on Cúcuta.

     

    Aid workers in Colombia fear a humanitarian crisis is brewing across the border as residents of the Venezuelan cities now find themselves unable to cross, or unwilling to pay armed criminals to do so.

     

    “We can no longer enter,” said Red Cross doctor Gabriel Antonio Casadiego. “We used to provide basic medical attention to those right across the border, but now it is closed to everyone.”

     

    Among the hundreds of Venezuelans seeking help on the Simón Bolívar bridge was Jesus Herrera, who said he made only 18,000 pesos ($6 USD) a month across the border.

     

    “I came for my daughter. She was having really bad stomach pains,” he said. “There is nothing in Venezuela. At this moment, in San Antonio, we don’t even have power.”

     

    Herrera said the gang who control the trochas had let them pass for free, but he was worried as no one could help his daughter on the Venezuelan side and they would have to return in a few days for another examination.

     

    The doctor, Casadiego, recalled how helpless he felt as a trauma specialist during the riots on 23 February. “All I could think about the whole day was that I could have been of help there,” he said. “They don’t even have basic medical supplies; but we couldn’t enter.”  

    Although he has been unable to assess the situation first hand, Casadiego said the types of patients he saw in Cúcuta left him in no doubt that the situation across the border was already disastrous.

    “We see malnutrition, chronic conditions that have long gone untreated, infections from a lack of antibiotics, dengue fever, and we see the aftermath of wounds from horrible work conditions and violence that were sometimes never treated properly,” he said. “They have no medical system.”

    almas_shelter_copy_1920.jpg

    Joshua Collins/IRIN
    Alma Maria Fernandez (right) runs a shelter and kitchen for Venezuelan migrants called Fund AR just outside Cúcuta.

     

    Worsening situation

     

    Just outside Cúcuta, Alma Maria Fernandez runs a shelter called Fund AR that provides food and lodging along the main route for migrants travelling on foot to the Colombian capital, Bogotá.  

    She said the days following the attempt to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela were particularly difficult. She estimates that 1,000 people a day passed by this small shelter, when before the number was a few hundred. “We completely ran out of food, of space. All we could offer to those passing was water.”

     

    Read more: Colombia’s border schools strained by new arrivals

     

    As the political situation in Venezuela has become more and more tense, those fleeing have become increasingly fearful that Maduro loyalists are infiltrating groups of migrants, according to Rodriguez, the priest from CONSORC.

     

    “Many of the Venezuelans want to hide their identities,” he said. “Part of our job is trying to ensure that they have the proper documents to apply for the right to work, to enrol their children in schools and receive medical treatment. But some of them are now afraid to even tell us their real names.”

     

    A paramedic who has worked 10 years for the Red Cross in the region but didn’t want to give his name as he couldn’t speak for the organisation referred to the aid showdown between Guaidó and Maduro as a “circus” and said it had made their jobs more difficult.

     

    “I will say this,” he added. “Right now there’s no power in the hospitals in [the major Venezuelan city of] San Cristóbal. It is certain that people are dying. And I can’t help them. Maybe before we could have at least communicated with them and provided transportation from the border to the hospitals here. But now we can do nothing. And that kills me.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A young Venezuelan family travelling on foot on the 10-day journey from the Colombia-Venezuela border to Bogotá. CREDIT: Joshua Collins/IRIN)

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    Failed aid gambit deepens crisis for Venezuelans at closed Colombia border
  • Dozens of aid workers, peacekeepers among Ethiopia air crash victims

    At least 45 aid workers, peacekeepers, or staff of international organisations are among the 149 passengers who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash – the deadliest commercial airline accident involving UN staff in decades.

     

    All 157 passengers and crew from more than 30 countries died when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa to Nairobi early on Sunday morning. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

     

    The UN initially confirmed at least 19 staff and consultants were on board, but the total may be higher. A spokesperson for the African Union told IRIN that four staff or associates working with the continental body had died, but again there could be further AU casualties. US-based Catholic Relief Services announced four staff were killed.

     

    Among the fatalities are a Ugandan police commissioner working in the AU mission in Somalia, and the founder of the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, an Italian charity known by its acronym CISP.

     

    Significant numbers of international development and civil service staff work in the region, and the routing from Addis Ababa to Nairobi linked two large East African hubs on the eve of an environmental conference held at the UN office in Nairobi.

     

    Aid workers and observers commenting on the crash recalled other aviation accidents involving aid workers and UN officials, including the following:

     

    1998: Nine UN workers died on SwissAir Flight 111 from New York to Geneva

    1999: In Kosovo, 24 people died in a crash of a UN-chartered plane

    2008: Seven UN and four NGO staff were among 17 passengers and crew who died in a chartered aid flight near Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    2011: UN staff made up 24 of 32 fatalities on a UN peacekeeping charter that crash landed at Kinshasa airport

    IRIN has gathered public statements, links, and announcements to draw up the following provisional list.

    Last update: 12:00 GMT 12 March 2019

    (TOP PHOTO: Onlookers near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302 near Bishoftu, a town some 60 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 11 March 2019. CREDIT: Michael Tewelde/AFP)

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    Dozens of aid workers, peacekeepers among Ethiopia air crash victims
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

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    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

    Two years have passed since extreme rains and flash floods inundated this fertile rice-growing region in northeastern Bangladesh, but farmer Shites Das still sees the lasting impact today: his neighbours are abandoning their homes and fields.

     

    In March 2017, torrential rains burst river banks, washed away roads, and damaged 220,000 hectares of precious rice crops – weeks before the yearly monsoon rains typically set in. It was the start of the worst flooding to hit the country in years. Rice imports skyrocketed to cover a national shortfall, more than 80,000 homes were destroyed across Bangladesh, and in tiny Daiyya village, many families were left without food or crops to sell through the year.

     

    “In my 32 years, I’ve never seen such hunger,” Das said.

     

    Families here say such extremes have become increasingly common: warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains that leave farmers guessing.

     

    "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das said. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    1_16_1920.jpg

    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Shites Das, a farmer in Daiyya village in northeast Bangladesh, says many of his neighbours have left their farms, unable to make ends meet.

    Climate scientists typically speak in general terms when explaining the links between climate change and extreme weather – global temperature rise makes volatile weather more likely and more severe.

     

    However, there’s a growing body of research zeroing in on climate change as the likely culprit for specific disasters that spark humanitarian emergencies – including the flash floods that submerged Daiyya village.

     

    In December, climate scientists published new research that for the first time examined the link between climate change and Bangladesh’s pre-monsoon rains. University of Oxford researchers analysed data showing that six-day rainfall totals over March and April 2017 exceeded flood thresholds by more than a third. Using historical data and model simulations, the researchers concluded that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” during that time frame.

     

    This “extreme event attribution” research was one of 17 similar papers published by the American Meteorological Society last year. Other studies found the marks of climate change in disasters from floods in Peru to heatwaves in Europe and China.

     

    In Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, it’s further evidence of what many here already know: weather extremes are having life-altering impacts.

     

    World Bank research predicts climate change could force tens of millions of people to migrate within their own countries by 2050, including some 13 million in densely populated Bangladesh alone.

    1_10_1920.jpg

    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Villagers walk along the banks of the Surma River in northeastern Bangladesh.

    The depleted villages of Bangladesh’s northeast offer a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality: village by village; family by family.

     

    Facing year-on-year crop loss and unpredictable weather, households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations. Das estimates nearly one third of his village has left for good.

    Households here have been moving to the cities in droves – giving up on the rice farming that has sustained them for generations.

    “Those who left our village in 2017 have not come back,” he said. “People got scared.”

     

    The next lost crop

     

    Bangladesh’s northeast is a land of stark contrast, where water is plentiful during the monsoon season, and drought-like weather prevails in the dry season.

     

    It’s dotted with haors – seasonal wetlands where boro, a type of paddy rice, is harvested as the monsoon season begins, typically in April and May. The region is one of the country’s rice bowls, contributing more than 16 percent of boro rice production each year.

     

    But it’s also one of Bangladesh’s poorest areas; the UN says more than a quarter of its 2.5 million population live in poverty. People mainly scratch out a living through fishing and duck farming, and by cultivating boro rice, which is only harvested once a year.

     

    Villages here were unprepared for 2017’s sudden floods.

    Das said he watched as farmer after farmer lost their entire crop. His own crop was wiped out; he survived in part by selling his valuable cattle at half the market price, he said.

     

    Others weren’t as lucky. In nearby Vatidhar village, 60-year-old Anu Begum said she relied on humanitarian food aid to survive.

     

    “We managed a meal, skipped another,” she said. “It was year-round suffering.”

     

    Humanitarian group BRAC, which started life in this district, stepped in with more than $2 million in food and cash aid that kept some families going for a year after the floods. But it covered only a fraction of the needs, said Parul Akter, who coordinates the NGO’s programmes in the area.

     

    “Our support was a drop in the ocean,” she said. “Every household suffered.”

     

    People in Vatidhar estimate that half of the village’s roughly 700 people have migrated to the cities since the floods.

     

    While there are no official statistics tracking the area’s migration after the floods, Akter said one third of BRAC’s 18,000 microfinance borrowers from one sub-district alone deserted their villages to find jobs in the eastern city of Sylhet, the southern port of Chittagong, or the capital, Dhaka.

     

    “People are worried about the next crop loss,” said Ali Hossain, a former local government representative in the area. “Even big farmers having up to 60 acres of land have quit farming.”

     

    The steady drain of farmers from one of Bangladesh’s main rice-producing regions could also have wider implications for food security. In 2017, rice imports soared to more than three million tonnes from less than 100,000 tonnes the year before – in large part due to shortfalls caused by the floods. At the same time, domestic rice prices climbed 30 percent – beyond the reach of the most vulnerable.

     

    Anwar Faruque, a former secretary in Bangladesh’s agriculture ministry who now consults for international development organisations, said a loss of haor rice crops could spark a food “crisis” for the entire country. This could lead to even more substantial imports and hiked prices.

     

    "The ultra-poor will be affected,” he said.

     

    A sign of things to come

     

    The northeast’s village-level population shifts were set in motion by a disaster, which in turn was likely triggered by climate change.

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    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Emdadul Huq, 75, farms rice in a wetlands area in northeastern Bangladesh. He says winters have grown warmer and rains more intense.

    The 2017 floods are the "early beginning of the trend” reflected across the country, said Atiq Rahman, a climate scientist who co-authored a chapter on vulnerabilities in the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the UN body that assesses climate science.

     

    And estimates suggest 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants each year head to cities in Bangladesh, driven by a complex mix of economic and environmental pressures.

     

    Experts warn that Bangladesh must boost preparations to help citizens adapt to climate change and better manage migration: development projects that help rural families weather the storms and offer a reason to stay home, for example.

    1_25_1920.jpg

    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    Children gather near a rice field. The seasonal wetlands, known as haors, are submerged for much of the year. Rice is harvested once a year as the monsoon season begins.

    “If your homestead is high, if you’ve adequate food, you can minimise your losses,” said Rahman, who believes that current government efforts are inadequate.

     

    AKM Nuruzzaman, a village official, said that internal migration is a necessity for many rural families in Bangladesh. Even when the monsoon rains come as scheduled and harvests are bountiful, there are no major industries and few job opportunities when it’s not farming season in his sub-district, he said.

     

    Many households rely on a migrating family member to send money back to the village. Others need more help to diversify their crops and income, he said.

     

    Adapting

     

    Some efforts are already underway.

     

    The country has ploughed more than $400 million into its Climate Change Trust, a state-funded body that finances adaptation and mitigation projects by government agencies. Roughly 80 percent of these funds have gone toward helping Bangladeshis adapt, said Mokhlesar Rahman Sarker, the fund’s deputy head.

    However, none of these adaptation projects cover the northeast haor region – in part because there has been little research about climate change’s impacts here, said AKM Mamunur Rashid, a climate change specialist with the UN Development Programme.

    1_37_1920.jpg

    Shafiqul Alam/IRIN
    A submersible road connects a village to a local market. The roads, built to withstand monsoon floods, are one way local governments are trying to adapt to a changing climate.

    But regular government departments are building projects such as submersible roads, which are designed to withstand floods, connecting villages to local markets even during the monsoon season.

     

    Other aid projects are helping local families adapt: a district-wide UN-funded programme has built protective walls to fortify villages against floods, and BRAC has introduced new varieties of rice that can be grown and harvested faster.

     

    But these efforts will come too late for those who have already left.

     

    A few months after the 2017 floods ravaged her family’s rice crop, Niyoti Rani Das, 51, took her two children and left Daiyya village for a city near Dhaka.

     

    Her eldest daughter abandoned her studies to help support the family. Together, they earn about $160 each month working in the booming but perilous textiles industry. Half the salary is eaten up by rent, and the family can’t afford school fees for the youngest, a 12-year-old boy.

     

    Das and her children live in a slum by a railway line and scramble to make ends meet. But she won’t return to her village: she has a sliver of land, but no rice to grow, she said.

     

    aa/il/ag

    After the floods, a real-time glimpse of migration as rice-farming villages empty
    How dire climate displacement warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh
  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.

      

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.

     

    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.

     

    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

     

    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.

     

    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)

    bp-il-as-si-ha/ag

    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter

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