x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UN determined to improve emergency response time

Haiti's earthquake and other so-called mega-crises are causing humanitarians to rethink their strategies, according to the agency's coordinator for coping with natural disasters.

NEW YORK // Valerie Amos, the UN's coordinator on coping with natural disasters, says Haiti's earthquake and other so-called mega-crises are causing humanitarians to rethink their strategies.

In an interview to mark the first anniversary of Haiti's quake, Baroness Amos said it took too long for aid workers to reach many victims of the disaster and that her UN agency was brainstorming on how to quicken its response time.

Many victims of the quake languished for days with broken limbs and infections as bottlenecks at the capital's main port and airport delayed the arrival of aid workers, medics and supplies.

"There are a number of areas we are looking at: one is the speed of response. The second is people, and how we scale-up and increase the numbers of people on the ground with the right kind of skills sets and experience," said Lady Amos, who became UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs in August.

After the quake, the Haitian president, Rene Preval, proposed the creation of a UN unit of doctors, engineers, rescue workers and logistical experts ready for action when disaster strikes. They were dubbed "red helmets" as counterparts to the blue-helmet peacekeepers.

But Lady Amos has rejected the suggestion, saying her agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, already has access to such expertise and should instead focus its efforts on speeding up their deployment.

"If you look at what is actually being proposed, the various elements already exist within the system. What you would have would duplicate existing mechanisms," she said. "We don't need a new initiative, we need to strengthen our existing mechanisms."

She warned that the world was likely to see more "mega-crises" such as Haiti's earthquake, the 2004 tsunami than killed more than 220,000 people across the Indian Ocean and last year's flooding in Pakistan, which affected more than 20 million people.

The emergency relief coordinator counted more than 250 humanitarian catastrophes in 2010, from protracted conflicts in Sudan and Congo to flooding in Colombia and Vietnam.

In Haiti, she described the complexities of a disaster that not only claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, but also trashed a capital and largely wiped out the capacity of the government and the UN to respond.

She defended UN response to the cholera outbreak. Critics have said that with so many relief workers and medical teams in Haiti, the disease should not have been allowed to spread so rapidly.

"There are areas where our response could have been much quicker. But people must understand the scale of what we are dealing with and the numbers of people we have been able to help in the past year - I don't want that to be forgotten," she said.

jreinl@thenational.ae