Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 October 2005

Natural Disasters in Asia and Central America: Statements.

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a statement to the Dáil on this matter. We have all been shocked and saddened at the destruction wreaked by the natural disaster which hit northern Pakistan and the surrounding areas on Saturday. The earthquake measured approximately 7.6 on the Richter scale. Aftershocks were as high as 5.9 in the immediate aftermath and they continue still on a lesser scale.

The result has been widespread devastation of towns and villages. Families and communities have been devastated. The death toll is now estimated to be in excess of 20,000 people. The final figure will be higher. Non-fatal casualties will be many times that figure. Many of the fatalities are children. Gathered together in schools, as their parents worked in the fields or workplaces, they were particularly vulnerable when the earthquake struck. The depth of grief for those who survived is incalculable. We share in their sadness. We join the international community in mourning that loss of precious human life.

The President and the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, conveyed the sympathies of the people of Ireland to their counterparts in Pakistan and India in the aftermath of this terrible disaster. I also extend my sympathies to the Pakistani community in Ireland which has been affected by this tragedy. We are fortunate to have such a vibrant Pakistani-Irish community in our country and I acknowledge its great contribution in assisting with relief efforts.

In appalling weather conditions, the immediate need is to bring relief and aid in order that further fatalities are minimised. Ireland has offered not just sympathy. Our allocation of €3 million is but an initial response to the needs of a people in the midst of an appalling human tragedy. In line with our previous timely response to both the tsunami and the food shortages in Niger earlier this year, our emergency response will be followed by a second phase response aimed at helping the region and its people towards recovery.

As Minister of State with responsibility for Irish aid, I have closely followed the situation since the earthquake on Saturday. I remained in contact over the following hours and days with my senior officials, the Taoiseach, colleagues in the Government and with key individuals such as the ambassador of Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Toheed Ahmad, and representatives of the Pakistani community in Ireland. I convened a meeting of Irish NGO representatives to discuss the situation, hear their views and brief them on our response. Officials from my Department and in missions abroad are in close contact with UN agencies and the International Federation of the Red Cross regarding emerging needs and situation reports.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake I made an initial pledge of €1 million to assist with immediate relief efforts in the region. That cash response was announced the day after the earthquake. When, on Monday, I met the ambassador of Pakistan to Ireland he gave me an update of the situation on the ground and outlined the emerging needs identified by the government of Pakistan for food, shelter and medical items. The region faces enormous logistical difficulties. Roads that had been cleared were cut off again by landslide and torrential rains. Relief supplies to Muzaffarabad, one of the most affected areas, could only be undertaken using scarce and limited air resources, mainly helicopters.

At the meeting on Monday with representatives of non-governmental organisations involved in the relief effort, I obtained an indication of their preliminary requirements. I briefed them on the decision to make an additional €2 million available for relief efforts in Pakistan and the surrounding region. I also briefed and heard the views of a representative of the Pakistani community, Dr. Mazhar Bari, who, as it happens, is a good friend.

This brings to €3 million the amount made available for the region in the aftermath of the earthquake. The initial need is for food, shelter and other basic non-food requirements. The Government is supporting the UN effort with €1.2 million. The Government is also allocating €l million of this funding to UNICEF which has mobilised quickly and released its pre-stocked relief supplies of blankets, children's clothing, plastic sheeting, water purifications tablets and high protein biscuits. UNICEF has operated in Pakistan since 1947 and has staff and supplies in the country. UNICEF convoys are en route with other essential supplies.

Specific funding has also been allocated to the World Health Organisation, WHO, which is supporting the Pakistani Ministry of Health and local health authorities in co-ordinating the health component of the response, including relief supplies and human resources, and supporting the establishment of public health initiatives, including an early warning communicable disease surveillance. We have also provided funding for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. OCHA is taking the lead on supporting the government of Pakistan's relief efforts and the response of UN partners and agencies. In particular, it is mobilising and co-ordinating assessment, planning, implementation and monitoring of assistance which is crucial for the provision of timely and effective aid.

The Government has allocated €300,000 to the International Federation of the Red Cross. The Red Cross and Red Crescent family of organisations, which is very experienced and is present in the area through its local networks, is on the ground. Our funding will support its work in the area. In the meetings with Ambassador Ahmad and the NGOs, and in my public statements, I made clear that we were conscious of the need to assist the recovery process. The recovery needs of the region will obviously be enormous given the scale of the destruction and the challenge of working in such difficult terrain. The Government is committed to assisting local communities in the recovery effort, through our donor and humanitarian partners.

Ireland has earned a very strong international reputation for responding generously to emergency and humanitarian crises globally. The provision of timely, significant and flexible funding represents good humanitarian donorship and is in line with best practice internationally. It is a tangible and manifest example of how the public's money is spent to relieve extreme human suffering through humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian assistance will continue to feature strongly in the context of expanding budgetary resources in the area of development co-operation. Irish Aid plans to be a leader in this area and to leverage best practice.

We are fortunate in having non-governmental organisations, NGOs, active on the ground. Discussions have taken place with a number of the Irish NGOs working directly or through partners in the affected region. I understand that already, through the sterling work of our own Irish NGOs, money has been raised from the public. I am conscious of the strong contribution the Pakistani community and the wider Muslim community has made in Ireland and now call on the Irish public to be generous in their response. I give my own voice and that of the Government to these fund raising appeals. I have made funding of up to €1.5 million available in support of the efforts of the Irish based NGOs in terms of their intervention on the ground.

Funding to develop NGO capacity has also been made available through the multi-annual programme scheme which offers predictable funding over a period of years around which the NGOs can plan their efforts. These types of funding have helped them to respond to major humanitarian emergencies in a more effective and timely manner. We will continue to monitor the ongoing situation closely, with the assistance of UN agencies and partner organisations, to ensure that our assistance can be effectively targeted.

I will now turn to another humanitarian emergency unfolding in Central America. Severe flooding made worse by remnants of Hurricane Stan has and continues to deluge vast areas of Central America, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Families continue to flee what is left of their homes and entire villages have been swept away by swollen rivers and mudslides.

The official death toll from the floods ravaging Central America and Mexico surged in recent days as hundreds more were feared dead in Guatemala following last week's mudslide that swallowed two small towns in the west of the country. In addition, 72 people were listed dead in El Salvador, 28 in Mexico and 11 in Nicaragua. The death toll is likely to double as about 1,400 people were believed to have been buried alive by a mudslide that hit Guatemalan towns, just over 100 miles west of the Guatemalan capital.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Federation of the Red Cross have launched appeals on behalf of the agencies that are actively supplying disaster and emergency aid in the region. Ireland is in contact with the UN, the International Red Cross and Irish NGOs working directly or through partners to establish the most appropriate response at this point. In response to this emergency I have allocated funding of €1 million for humanitarian assistance, which will be dispersed among the Red Cross, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and non-­governmental organisations providing services on the ground.

In 2005 Ireland has already made separate contributions of over €9.5 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and €3 million to UNICEF for its global operations. These funds have been deliberately not earmarked to ensure they can be utilised quickly and effectively for emergency and humanitarian planning and rapid responses by these key UN agencies. This contribution from Ireland is in line with international best practice. UN agencies will demand and require more of this form of aid in the future whereby money is donated at an earlier stage. Every dollar available for pre-emptive or early intervention saves €7 in the cost of emergency response. Over €2 million was released to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA, to facilitate that agency to plan for prioritised humanitarian emergencies. Ireland's early funding provides much needed cash flow for these agencies at a time when they need it most.

The overall budget for humanitarian assistance is deliberately designed to be flexible in response to disasters of this kind wherever they occur. In the context of increased funding, the Government is reviewing all practices and procedures to ensure quality programming, including the provision of humanitarian relief and rapid response.

Ireland will respond as generously and effectively as possible to the humanitarian needs of the people of northern Pakistan and the surrounding regions as the situation unfolds by funding those agencies and NGOs optimally placed to deliver the wide range of basic needs and services which will be essential to protect the most vulnerable. A significant increase in resources for overseas aid is being planned for the period up to 2012. The Government will review and expand its early preparedness for these situations. The level of funding for emergency and recovery functions will be increased.

Some leading NGOs such as Trócaire, GOAL and Concern play a significant role in emergency response and the expanded programme will enhance and deepen the level of co-operation with those agencies. They do fantastic work in far-flung places and become involved in very difficult and dangerous situations such as earthquakes, famine, flood and incidences of civil disorder. The work of these agencies is strongly endorsed by the Government and the official Irish aid programme and the Government is anxious to enhance that co-operation. We will resume contact with our Pakistani friends at embassy and international level to maximise Ireland's contribution to the recovery phase in which people try to rebuild their lives and homes, return to work and school and normal life recommences where possible.

I thank all the party Whips who have provided me with the opportunity to outline the Government's response and its continuing interest.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Like the Minister of State, I extend the sympathy and support of the Fine Gael Party to the people who have been affected in Pakistan and the general area of Kashmir and surrounding areas. The televised images of this disaster brings home its impact on the support services, which are miniature in scale when compared with the magnitude of the disaster. Four major disasters have occurred in the past ten months, the tsunami, the New Orleans hurricane, the Asian earthquake and the flooding in Central America. I acknowledge the great work done by the voluntary bodies such as the NGOs and aid agencies which have become major players.

The areas where disasters have struck seem to be lacking in supplies of heavy lifting gear which are essential for the early restoration of essential services such as roads and bridges and the removal of collapsed buildings under which people are trapped and may still be alive. The breakdown in the communications network and the road and rail network must be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity but the international community has not yet been able to make an effective input. The rapid response unit proposed by the EU could co-operate with bodies such as the United Nations as they are all involved in the same business. The difficulty seems to be in the ability to move the necessary machinery to where it is needed and without delay. This may not always be possible within 24 hours but it should be in place within two or three days or a week later. The greater the delay, the more difficult the logistics become and the greater the risk of a breakdown in law and order.

Natural disasters on a large scale require a timely response and support for aid agencies and voluntary groups such as the International Red Cross at an early stage is crucial. The criticisms of the local response in Pakistan are unfair. Infrastructure such as roads and telecommunications must be repaired so aid can be supplied. Given the frequency of these natural disasters, more co-ordination and speed must be introduced into any response.

I congratulate the Government for its efforts. It is expected of a country at this stage of development that it should be able to respond in that fashion. I hope the UN baseline figure for aid of 0.7% of GDP as envisaged in the second UN declaration will be achieved.

The responsibility remains with the developed world to respond as best and speedily as it can. Different situations have differing needs but the most immediate are housing shelter, drinking water, food and clothing. The agencies have the ability to deliver in those circumstances but co-ordination is required. Moral support is not sufficient as aid when people on the ground are waiting for a delivery.

Weather conditions have been a serious problem in this most recent disaster. The weather became atrocious at the time of the earthquake, which was unfortunate but one of those things that can happen. With a natural disaster, there is no way of planning for the outcome.

An early evaluation of the situation in a disaster area is essential. It is not always possible to do this, because evaluators may be travelling from the far corners of the world and the logistics of getting into certain areas can be very difficult. However, the earlier an assessment can be made, the better for all concerned. Assessments should also be as indepth as possible, to benefit those affected. For example, a week after the New Orleans disaster, people where still speculating as to what needed to be done. This happened in the most powerful country in the world, where the logistics, heavy lifting equipment and necessary gear were readily available. The problem in New Orleans was a failure to identify the full extent of the problem as early as possible and to take the necessary action. People were tripping over one another in their efforts to help, but there was no proper co-ordination of the relief effort. That is the lesson to be learned from that particular disaster.

We should learn from each and every disaster that occurs to improve the manner in which we respond. Unfortunately, there will be more disasters such as the ones we are now discussing. Global warming may be a factor but we cannot blame it for the recent earthquake. For whatever reason, it seems natural disasters are happening more frequently and in that context, we should learn from each one and put our experience to good use in terms of our response.

To reiterate, an initial assessment in any disaster situation is essential. A rapid assessment which gathers as much information as possible and identifies the needs of the people who are still alive must take place at an earlier stage than has been the case to date. Co-ordination of the way in which help is delivered is vital and relief efforts are more effective when co-operation from the authorities in the countries concerned is secured. The items that are most essential should be identified as early as possible, whether they be household items, shelter, food, water and so on. The order of priority will not necessarily be the same in every disaster situation. The items need to be assessed, identified and the means found to deliver them to the affected areas in the shortest possible time. If we do that, in the first instance, we will address the problems of the people who are directly affected in a meaningful way.

I extend my sympathies to the affected people in Asia and Central America. The Irish people have always risen to situations such as these and responded generously. I have no doubt they will do so now and again in the future. I hope the lessons we have learned from the past will be put to good use and will improve the way we deliver aid, if and when required.

2:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the current position in Pakistan and the tragedies unfolding in Central America. I join others who have offered their sympathy to the President and people of Pakistan and to the ambassador here. I also warmly welcome the indications of assistance from the Government so far.

What has struck everybody is the vulnerability, in particular, of remote villages which cannot be accessed easily following an earthquake of this scale. It raises the issue of the urgency that attaches to the establishment of a disaster prediction agency and of such an agency being available in more than one location. This issue came to the fore immediately after the tsunami and the view of the experts, within the United Nations and elsewhere, is that we need the capacity to make a regional response. It is urgent that we make progress on this. It is also important that we accept, given the disposal of the populations at risk, often with only single road access, that air transport is required in the immediate aftermath if we are to respond to disasters quickly. This points to the necessity of having a rapid reaction force to handle disasters.

This disaster provides an opportunity to respond generously and in a concerned way. It was very moving to hear of the manner in which people from the different communities of Kashmir, India and Pakistan living abroad shared in their concern for people at home. I offer my sympathy on behalf of the Labour Party and of most of the Irish people.

It is important that we are able to respond and can put aside any sense of weariness. I welcome the Government's pledge of €3 million for Pakistan and its disposal of that money. I make the case, however, that we need to look at the medium-term situation and at what must be achieved through the international agencies, particularly the United Nations.

I am much more familiar with the region of Central America. The areas that have been affected by Hurricane Stan include Guatemala, El Salvador, southern Mexico and Nicaragua. I have visited Central America many times. It would be a great pity if, because of the general problem of aid weariness and the fact that this region is not being covered by the international media, this disaster was driven out by images from another part of the world. It would be appalling and morally unacceptable if we had to choose between disasters to which to respond.

This has happened before — Hurricane Mitch struck the region in 1998. The last disaster in Central America, involving El Salvador, among other countries, was in 2001, when mudslides wiped out entire villages, which is happening again. There is a need to deal with the preventative issues such as deforestation, the capacity to provide low cost housing and the capacity to replace agricultural tools and seeds that have been lost.

We are very fortunate that Trócaire has an office in Honduras, headed by Sally O'Neill Sanchez. It also has offices in Guatemala and El Salvador. It has already allocated a considerable amount of money, approximately €70,000, from its own resources to the disaster relief but this is but a drop in the ocean in terms of what is required. I urge the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to assess the allocation to Central America and take into account the capacity that is already there. There are offices there with experience stretching back to the 1980s. They dealt with Hurricane Mitch and the natural disaster of 2001. Money given to those offices would be spent very effectively and very much welcomed.

The estimated death toll in Guatemala is officially 652. However, aid workers on the ground have pointed out that they cannot account for many people who are missing. A final figure is difficult to arrive at because entire villages have been wiped out. Ms O'Neill Sanchez has reported that some of the villages constitute mass graves as they have simply been covered by mudslides. Some 790 deaths have been recorded in El Salvador, with more than 60,600 people remaining in shelters.

I am aware from previous responses to natural disasters in Central America that if the television cameras cannot get there quickly, it is assumed that the events did not take place, which is disastrous because these are poor people. If one examines the United Nations development report, one will find that these countries are in the bottom category on the human development index. There is very little local capacity in these areas. Guatemala, where people are suffering, is interesting. Of the seven Central American states, statistically it has an Indian majority of approximately 51% or 52%. We should be concerned about this aspect.

The Minister of State is correct to stress the importance of the contribution of non-governmental organisations in Pakistan and the surrounding region, and also in Central America. Irish NGOs are working directly in Pakistan as well as through partner organisations. These organisations deserve our support. I join the Minister of State and other spokespersons in thanking them for their efforts.

The immediate requirements in Central America, with which I am more familiar, is housing and shelter. It will also be necessary to reactivate agricultural and livestock production as people who miss out on a whole season will need assistance in this area. It is urgent that mechanisms be put in place for the restoration of clean drinking water. Like the Pakistan situation, albeit to a minor degree, there will be difficulties, particularly in mountainous areas, in trying to restore a minimal road access network.

I appeal to the Minister of State to assist Trócaire in dealing with the disaster in Central America where €70,000 has been allocated across 19 organisations. This amount of money will only go so far towards providing food, medicines, water, bedding and shelter materials, including personal hygiene items. I am sure the Minister of State will be sympathetic to my appeal for assistance in this regard.

I congratulate the Irish Government for responding quickly on this occasion and for indicating that it will respond further when the need arises. Given the level of public support and the experience of different Governments working abroad, this country should endeavour to develop an expertise whereby it can play a leading role in developing the capacity for prediction, which is scientific, shared on a regional basis, and for a rapid response to reconstruction.

Central America is a hurricane region. No one should be surprised to hear of hurricanes happening in this part of the world. We are all aware of the response that was necessary when hurricane Mitch took place and there was a further disaster in 2001. In 2005, we should have been able to anticipate the needs as they arose and respond effectively.

I look forward to the Minister of State's response. I decided to emphasise the Central American situation, because it is the area with which I am most familiar, and I was anxious that it should not get lost entirely in the debate. I will conclude by saying that the level of deaths in Pakistan, Kashmir and the wider region, which will exceed 40,000, strikes all of us as a great humanitarian disaster. It is encouraging that people in Ireland have been able to respond to it and those who respond by way of a generous allocation will have the support of this side of the House.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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I wish to share my time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The sheer scale of the disaster in terms of the numbers of people affected in the Kashmir-Pakistan region is breathtaking and very difficult to take in. We must understand how exceptional it is in terms of our response. While there is a limit to what can be done in the days and weeks ahead, we cannot lose sight of the fact that there is need for an ongoing contribution to help people to rebuild their lives. While the region is politically volatile, I share the views of other Members on the unity displayed in the region, which is important.

I listened carefully to what Deputy Higgins said about Central America and I recognise that this is part of what is being debated today. People understand that there must be a second response by way of putting people's lives back together, in which charitable donations play an important role. However, when the television coverage ends, these donations can dry up, which is where the Government's response must come in.

There is a third and important response, namely, learning from these disasters. Science indicates that this area is on an earthquake fault line where these disasters will recur. Therefore, it is important to predict and plan for these disasters. For example, in Japan, there is a very good model whereby people who live in these geographical locations are informed where to go to be safe and materials that may be helpful are identified. It is dreadful to witness people trying to remove rubble with their bare hands which may be covering human beings who are still alive underneath. Very often the rescue effort takes far too long to put into operation. We must influence how policy develops in terms of predicting and responding to disasters so that we can try to minimise the number of lives lost, particularly in the case of earthquakes.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the earthquakes on this sad day. I wish to begin by expressing my sympathy to the people of Pakistan, Kashmir and Guatemala. These earthquakes and mudslides were a nightmare experience for many of these people. It is important to indicate our cross-party sympathy, solidarity and support for the people concerned. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Lenihan, is present for the debate because it is important to get out there and assist the people concerned.

It is time in this debate for support, solidarity, compassion and action to help the people involved. I urge the world, through the United Nations and the EU, including Asia and South America, to unite over the next 24 hours to aid the countries in question. We are talking about people on the front line, not nationalities. The earthquake in Pakistan is estimated to have killed 50,000 people with 23,000 bodies recovered so far. Approximately 2.5 million need shelter. A total of 11,000 died in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, which was the worst hit city. The earthquake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and there were 22 aftershocks. It is essential there is no hesitation in coming to the aid of people in the region. The saddest incident reported following this disaster involved 250 girls who were crushed to death in the rubble of their primary school. I worked as a teacher for 20 years and this is a nightmare for the families and the teachers affected. The earthquake triggered landslides and flattened apartment buildings, killing 2,000 people in one incident. Buildings shook and walls swayed for almost a minute in the capitals of Afghanistan, Indian and Pakistan and panicked people ran from their homes and offices.

There was one positive incident during the earthquake as Indian soldiers left their position to assist their Pakistani counterparts. It is sad they are in bunkers pointing guns at each other. Many countries must come out of their bunkers. I express my support for and solidarity with Fr. Alec Reid, who instigated the peace process in Northern Ireland. He successfully urged people to come out of their bunkers. I support him, particularly as many people have attacked him in the past 12 hours. Reference to bunkers and respecting different nationalities is relevant in Ireland.

The role of the UN and rich developed countries is important. I am always amazed how powers such as the US and Britain invade countries in a matter of hours, erect tents and set up field hospitals, yet when a catastrophe occurs, a bureaucratic problem delays the provision of aid. Why when people are starving in the world, does the international community not come to their aid?

In Guatemala 1,400 Mayan Indians were killed in a horrific landslide triggered by Hurricane Stan. It was absolutely appalling and I urge western powers to provide assistance.

The Government has received much criticism for not meeting its target of 0.7% of GNP for the overseas development aid budget. I am a critic but I challenge the media to devote 0.7% of their coverage to development issues in order that people understand the true picture.

I commend members of the public for their magnificent donations to voluntary organisations in the past 12 months. Trócaire received €56 million in 2004, an increase of €30 million on the previous financial year. Much of the money was donated following the Asia tsunami appeal, which generated €26.5 million. The public wants to help and I call on the Minister of State and the Government to back the public and end the war on poverty.

On behalf of Independent Members, I offer my sympathy and support to the people of Pakistan, Kashmir and Guatemala.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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On behalf of the Green Party, I offer my deepest sympathy to the people of Pakistan, Kashmir and Guatemala and the surrounding areas. The severe flooding in Central America has been overlooked. A deluge has been experienced in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and army helicopters and aid trucks are ferrying food to villages in the Guatemala highlands, which remain isolated. Natural disasters will happen but there is a link between the recent hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, and climate change. Something must be done about this problem soon. The Government's response to the Kyoto Protocol has been irresponsible. We are part of the global community but the people affected by the recent disasters have not contributed substantially to the problem of climate change and global warming. Western countries, in particular the US, are contributing to the problem. The death toll following Hurricane Katrina is estimated at 14,000, although I have read other estimates of between 2,000 and 4,000. We are faced with this difficulty in both the US and Pakistan.

Many children were affected by the earthquake in Pakistan. Those of us who are parents find that the most traumatic element of such disasters. Pakistan ranks 135th of 177 countries on the UN human development list, yet one of the first news stories to emerge following the earthquake was that the nuclear installations and weapons were fine. It is obscene that so much is spent on weapons of mass destruction but not enough money is available to deal with serious natural disasters. While the Government has donated money, is this allocation in addition to the original development aid budget for 2005? How much is being donated?

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The money is coming out of the emergency fund, which is part of our existing funding.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Dublin South East, Green Party)
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A significant number of disasters have occurred in recent years. An international emergency aid force should be established by the UN. Such a force is vital because not a week goes by without an emergency. A force should be in place to deal properly with emergencies throughout the world.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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On behalf of all members of Sinn Féin, I express our deepest condolences over the tragic loss of up to 40,000 lives in the earthquake last Saturday that hit Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Our thoughts are with all the bereaved families, the orphaned children and the traumatised survivors, many of whom have been made homeless and jobless and must rebuild their lives. Our thoughts are also with the adults and children who are more vulnerable than ever to preventable death from hunger or disease and the Pakistani, Indian and Afghanistan citizens, leaders, public servants and NGOs who are coping with a large scale disaster. The bravery and community spirit demonstrated by ordinary citizens in these devastated communities humbles all of us.

Sinn Féin extends its solidarity to all of them, our brothers and sisters, as they face the daunting task of preventing a second wave of disease-related deaths, in particular, as torrential rain and winds continue to obstruct and hamper relief efforts. Médecins Sans Frontières has warned of the threat posed by water-borne diseases in Muzaffarabad, in particular, where people are surviving in cramped conditions, with some forced to spend nights without shelter, food or medical care in harsh and freezing weather conditions. We also extend our solidarity to those preparing for the monumentally difficult task of reconstruction in the weeks and months ahead.

I welcome the Government's pledge of €3 million to assist relief efforts in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The UN appealed for $272 million in aid. It is estimated that about 2.5 million people are now in need of the basics of life such as shelter, medical care, food and water. As the second wealthiest country in the world, I invite the Government to commit additional resources, including further financial resources, to assist the relief efforts in the region.

On behalf of the Sinn Féin Party, I express our deepest condolences over the tragic loss of at least 1,000 lives as a result of the mudslides caused by the tropical storm Stan last week in Guatemala. We are also deeply concerned for all the people affected by the severe flooding in other parts of Central America, including El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Our thoughts are with the bereaved families especially those who still wait in uncertainty and all who have been left homeless by the mudslides and floods. We recognise with admiration the great work of the local people, NGOs and state agencies who have been engaged in the harrowing task of attempting to recover bodies and to care for those survivors who managed to flee their homes in time. Sinn Féin extends its solidarity to the people of Central America in this time of great distress and need.

I welcome the Government's second pledge of €1 million to assist relief efforts in Central America. I invite the Government to make available to the region as many resources, including financial and practical, as possible. Sinn Féin welcomed the commitment included in the United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome to "supporting the efforts of countries, in particular developing countries, to strengthen their capacities at all levels in order to prepare for and respond rapidly to natural disasters and mitigate their impact". I urge the Government to respond positively and in a timely manner to all and any requests made of it by the United Nations as it participates in the response to the disasters in Asia and Central America, respectively.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I offer my deepest sympathy to those affected in Pakistan and Guatemala. I compliment my constituency colleague, the Minister the State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, on his work and initiative. I am a strong supporter of his efforts and have had a long-term interest in the issue of development aid with regard to disasters and more generally. I have a close friendship with Mr. Chris Flood, who I succeeded in the Dáil, and who has done considerable work in this area. He was of great assistance to the Minister of State and the Department of Foreign Affairs in respect of the tsunami disaster when he became the Irish envoy and he has made an ongoing contribution to the debate on development aid.

Some colleagues have made points bordering on party political and I am not sure it should be that type of debate. It is important we express solidarity in Parliament and I compliment those who have arranged this debate. Reference has been made to the Pakistani community in Ireland and Dublin. Many Pakistani families reside in my constituency, particularly in the Tallaght area. I have spoken to some of them in my local parish. In my local school, St. Mark's, there is an international community and a considerable percentage of schoolchildren are from different countries, including Pakistan. They have been upset by events in their country, particularly in respect of deaths of children. Pictures and reports from Pakistan were particularly moving. A report on RTE's "Morning Ireland" programme could not have failed to move people as it presented the situation in a graphic way.

When news of these disasters emerged, I was on a parliamentary trip to Ukraine. As other colleagues have pointed out, Ireland is now proud to be a serious member of the international community. We must play a role in this regard and must take a lead in response to disasters. I am glad the Government has been particularly responsive.

The Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was in my local area, Tallaght, on Monday afternoon. He took the opportunity to brief journalists on what the Government was doing. I was struck by his demeanour as he represented the concerns felt by all. Others have called for an increase in the money earmarked for aid, €3 million for Pakistan and €1 million for America. I am confident the Department will respond as it did to the Asian tsunami, the Government will not be found wanting and we will take our role in the international community seriously.

I was impressed by many points made by the Minister of State. I share his shock and sadness and have already made contact with members of the Pakistani community in the Tallaght area. They appreciate the response of local people and as churchgoers focus on subjects of prayer this weekend the people of Pakistan and the South American states will be on our minds.

I hope something positive can emerge from this tragedy. I visited a school last week to speak on road safety and one child made a profound comment, she said road safety was not just a matter for today nor for this week. This is a theme we should remember. Disasters such as mudslides and earthquakes bring these matters to world attention and to people's psyches. I am glad there has been a correction of media coverage of the disasters, as it appeared to have slipped off television screens after a few days. I searched for text on this for a few days and it seems we take tragedy for granted. The same logic applies to killings in Iraq and this is wrong. We should be concerned about loss of lives and devastation of communities. The international media must understand this is worthy of our attention. In recent days news bulletins and news agencies have refocused on the disaster.

When one watches the television and sees the way children are suffering it is important to see a political response to the disaster. I urge the Minister of State to convey these sentiments to the ambassador and I am pleased to see the apology from the President of Pakistan for the lack of response. Such apologies are important as people are the priority and their needs must be met, especially when they are dying. The total number of dead and people affected will be significant.

It struck me during the week that in this 21st century, when we can use our phones to send text messages across the world, communication in a region in Pakistan remains so difficult. I am sure the position is the same in Guatemala. I realise there are political and boundary issues relating to different countries but people cannot get the information and it appears it may be some time before we know how many people died in some of those areas. That is something that should affect us and I hope the Government, through the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, will continue to convey that message. As ever, the Irish people will be responsive to the need following this tragedy. The Government is showing a clear lead in that regard and I hope the various aid agencies will take advantage of the generosity of the Irish people, who are represented in communities throughout the country.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and support the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, in what he is attempting to do. As I said, it is important that we not only join the international community in mourning the huge loss of life in these regions but also play our part as a serious member of the international community. I hope all of us will be brave enough to admit we will close our eyes in the next few days and pray for the people concerned and the relief effort.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I would not say I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this issue but I am pleased to be in the House to do so. It has been a tragic 12 months in terms of natural disasters. We have had hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, mudslides, bush and forest fires and famine due to drought. One disaster appears to follow the next. The tsunami of less than 12 months ago seems like years ago because it has been overtaken in our newspapers and on our television screens by equally horrific tragedies, one after the other. We must begin to ask ourselves, as an international wealthy community in the West, what we are doing to prepare for what we know will be the next tragedy.

On 8 October a powerful earthquake, 7.6 on the Richter scale, struck north-east Islamabad, Pakistani Kashmir, near the Indian border, followed by a series of aftershocks. The earthquake centred on the Kashmir border between India and Pakistan, although the tremor was felt as far away as Kabul and New Delhi. The worst affected regions appear to be in and around the town of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan administered Kashmir, close to the line of control with India. The town itself is extremely badly damaged and some of the surrounding villages have been flattened, as the Minister of State outlined.

The earthquake has probably killed more than 30,000 people but it is difficult to estimate, even within 5,000 or 10,000, the numbers who have died. It appears that up to 60,000 people have been injured, 1 million people have been left in acute need of life saving assistance, 2.5 million people are homeless and 4 million people have been affected. Many access routes to the region have been blocked by mudslides and earthquakes, making it difficult to get relief teams into the area.

So far, the response has been substantial but it has not been enough because people continue to die. On 11 October, the United Nations launched a $272 million flash appeal for the south Asia earthquake. The appeal covers life saving and early recovery activities for a six-month emergency phase in the remote region which faces enormous logistical difficulties because landslides have cut off many of the roads, access to many areas is only possible by helicopter and more than 80% of the buildings have been destroyed. The people need shelter, nutrition, medicines, first aid and transport to carry all that. Heavy rain has made much of the area uninhabitable and mudslides make access even more difficult than it was previously. General access to the area is incredibly difficult. Only one small road is open for light vehicles, which means the people are almost entirely dependent on helicopters to carry in the materials needed for up to 2.5 million homeless people in the region.

UN agencies are already in the area and it is up to the UN to lead in this effort. The UNHCR has begun distributing basic relief supplies for up to 100,000 people using the existing stockpiles throughout the region, including tents, blankets and stoves. The UN world food programme is initially airlifting 200 metric tonnes of high energy biscuits, sufficient for almost 250,000 people, which is vital in the first few days following a disaster when there are no means to cook food. The UN population fund has begun trucking in medical supplies, warning that tens of thousands of people in the area are pregnant and in need of nutrition, medicines and antenatal care for the safe delivery of babies. Many other UN agencies are already at work in the area, including the World Health Organisation and the UN children's fund, UNICEF.

I have concentrated on the UN's response because no one country, certainly not one the size of Ireland, can make a significant impact on its own. So far, the Government's response financially has been fairly good compared with other countries internationally. Ireland and the Irish people are generous when it comes to supporting non-governmental organisations, and the Government is also reasonably generous when it comes to putting funds in place.

I want to reinforce the point made by Deputy Michael D. Higgins about the Irish Government working through the UN because that is the appropriate point of contact, and we have now a so-called UN ambassador, the Minister for Finance, who is involved in the UN reform process. One of the areas the UN must focus on, given what has happened in the past 12 months, is a more efficient crisis response in the areas we can predict will experience problems. We can predict that there will be mudslides and floods in central America again next year. We can predict that there will be hurricane damage in the Caribbean again next year.

We are not talking about creating a crisis force based in Europe or America that can be sent off to regions of the world that need its assistance. It is about building up home-grown capacity in different countries, which is a less sexy but much more efficient and effective way of giving aid. In areas where we know there is likely to be earthquake activity, we should build up supplies, financed by the UN if the countries cannot afford to do it themselves, to ensure the response can get to the areas quickly rather than try to impress the world by sending off planes from the West or by having former American Presidents filmed on site. The UN must give leadership and build capacity in areas of the world that do not have it currently. That is the practical way we can respond.

I am glad to say that our Department of Foreign Affairs has real credibility on human rights and development aid issues within the UN. I know that from people who work in the UN. We also have similar credibility within the European Union where we could be examining the question of communal responses to crises. After the tsunami last year it took the European Union two weeks to issue a coherent press statement outlining its response, only for the British Foreign Minister to contradict that statement. Let us start building capacity and use our influence as a small cog in a big wheel to bring about change within the European Union and within the United Nations. We should build Ireland's reputation for speaking out on human rights and development aid issues because people listen to us in those areas.

The media dictates our response to natural disasters. The more dramatic the incident looks the bigger the impact for four or five days and the need for a political response. Instead of looking for the PR in these responses we should look for planning.

President Musharraf said his government did not have anything like the capacity to deal with such an event, although it was predicted. This is where the United Nations needs to offer leadership and where it has lost credibility over a range of areas in the past two or three years. There is an opportunity now to build UN credibility for offering leadership in desperate situations such as the earthquake, where schools have been swallowed by the earth and populations on the scale of Clonmel have been wiped out, and where the military, medical or organisational capacities do not exist.

Unfortunately, most of these tragedies happen in poor parts of the world, which are hopelessly disorganised and ill-prepared to deal with such events. New Orleans is an exception to this but it was not ready.

Given their wealth, Europe and the United States particularly can play a vital non-political role through the United Nations by increasing capacity in the poorest parts of the world where there is strong evidence to suggest there will be more problems. We already do that in regard to early warning systems for tsunamis or tidal waves to gain a few extra hours' notice. Do we also stockpile food, blankets, tents and medical care and have teams of experts who can travel from the developed world to the developing world at a moment's notice?

Last year I went as a representative of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. We met Louise Arbour, the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, who told us that when there is a slaughter in a place such as Darfur she does not have the finance to give the go-ahead to send an inspection team. It normally takes two weeks before she can do so. That comment reminded me how poorly organised and structured some parts of the United Nations are in respect of immediate responses, and how bad the planning is to deal with humanitarian or natural disasters.

Ireland can do only so much in these cases. We can give money but that can make only a small impact. We can, however, have a large impact and gain an international reputation as a country that is consistent and insistent in trying to bring about UN reform. We can forget about the Security Council because what Ireland says there will not make a great difference.

We should concentrate on areas where we have influence and credibility such as human rights and development aid, to build a capacity in the United Nations for an immediate crisis response to horrific situations of which we have seen many examples in the past 12 months.

I have not spoken about the mudslides in Central America but I appeal to the Minister of State and his Department to ensure they are not forgotten because of the enormity of the earthquake in Pakistan.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I join my colleague, Deputy Michael Higgins, and the Labour Party in offering condolences to the families and others who have been bereaved in Pakistan and in India, and to those who have endured dreadful suffering and loss in Central America. I concur with both Deputy Coveney and Deputy Michael Higgins in regard to preparation for and prediction of disasters and the development of a rapid reaction capacity at regional and national levels.

The only groups of people who can deal with the aftermath of a disaster such as that in Pakistan are the army, fire brigade, ambulance services, and people who are trained to take orders, not to compete with other agencies but to go in and do the job. Pakistan has a significant army and spends a fair percentage of its national budget on defence and military hardware. If a country is disaster prone or is in a disaster prone region, and requires a large defence budget, it should be possible to develop a protocol whereby a percentage of its defence expenditure is devoted to a capacity to react and cope with disasters.

I concur with Deputy Coveney's point about the PR image of disasters. Much of the media engage in a type of disaster pornography, for want of a better word. It wants pictures of people at their most desperate and destitute. While the intention behind images such as those from Darfur and Niger, and the few from Pakistan, may help to raise funding and alert people's compassion, we must guard against transferring them to the whole of the country. This gives the impression that people from whole continents or regions have no capacity and feeds into a theory, which is a legacy of colonialism, that no local government is good, all local politicians are corrupt and someone on a white horse must charge in from the west to rescue them.

The reality at local level is very different. These countries have armies which have capacity to lift supplies and carry out emergency repairs that is not available to any development or disaster relief agency. The focus at UN and regional level should be on building and identifying that capacity and the commitment to it.

I have examined some of the reports regarding the aftermath of the tsunami. I welcome the Government's allocation but feel that when writing large cheques to UN organisations, we need much more accountability for how the money is spent. The Government has rightly been on the ropes in the House this week on the issue of consultants. The UN and its family of agencies probably have more per square foot than even Fianna Fáil and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, have ever considered having.

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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I do not believe that.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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There is a need to retain a sense of accountability. Preliminary reports on the tsunami spending indicate that in a fair number of cases money — not necessarily Irish money but generally — was not particularly well spent. There are problems. If one imports food from the rest of the world, does one wipe out local producers? If one imports textiles, blankets and so on, does one wipe out local capacity?

Some years ago, a course was run by a very eminent Irish-American physician, Dr. Cahill, in the College of Surgeons to prepare for disasters. Codes of conduct regarding disasters, especially for agencies, were drawn up. That has not happened in recent years and perhaps the Department should consider supporting it. By their nature, people in non-governmental organisations move on over a six or ten-year period. Often they are relatively young. I thought the course I referred to was quite useful.

We also have the efforts of the Army in the Curragh regarding the UN. Since the job is primarily for armies, we should consider drawing together like-minded countries and specialising in the development of rapid reaction capacity. Some years ago regulations for people such as nurses and doctors were changed to provide for emergency leave of absence, Ireland being very flexible in that regard. We have several agencies such as Concern particularly known for a high-quality, thought-out approach to the aftermath of a disaster.

Global warming is relevant to the kinds of dreadful disasters besetting countries in Central America. We had hurricane Mitch and now we have hurricane Stan. They come in cycles and can be predicted. Working in concert with the countries of Latin America, particularly South America, and also with the United States, which have considerable capacity, Ireland should seek input into preparedness and rapid reaction. People in the US are still coming to terms with what did not happen in the aftermath of the destruction of New Orleans. The US army corps of engineers is responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, and it is interesting that it is only that corps that is really able to replace it. The United States itself has entered a period of reflection regarding how it was unable to cope.

I welcome the response of the Minister and the Department. There is a very large Pakistani community in Ireland, which I know has been to the fore in seeking to help fellow countrymen at home. It makes a great contribution to business and people working here. They have integrated very well, but most retain strong ties with home. Many are now happily married to Irish people, so there is a very large Irish-Pakistani community. I offer my condolences on behalf of the Labour Party.

While the Indian part of Kashmir was affected to some extent, it was on nothing like the scale of what happened in Pakistan. It is interesting to reflect that, after independence more than 50 years ago, the Indians decided that they would have a national capacity to respond to the regular famines that then beset the country. That phenomenon of widespread famine has largely been dealt with by the Indian Government. Similarly, although the scale of the disaster was smaller, it has been able to provide a very extensive response in those areas of India affected by the disaster. There is local knowledge and expertise that we should respect and utilise.

Central America will be the cockpit of the adverse and extraordinary weather caused by global warming. The Irish development programme should seek a much more structured and extensive programme regarding the countries of Central America and several critical issues that face not only them but also South American ones, including what is happening to indigenous people. That is at the cutting edge of democratisation and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of people affected by the dreadful consequences of the mudslides and so on are indigenous.

I know that the Minister is writing a White Paper and conducting a review of the principles of the Irish aid programme. I certainly hope that he will find space for a programme, in the context of the extra funds eventually made available by the Government, to include Latin America in a considered fashion and talk to people in the region about their priorities. He must also bear in mind the needs of indigenous communities in that region.

3:00 pm

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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I reiterate my party's sympathy and condolences to those who suffered so disastrously in the recent tragic devastation of towns, villages, families and communities and acknowledge the human pain and misery created by it. The individual trauma of those who have been injured or lost all their belongings is incalculable. When, at a distance, we speak in broad terms regarding our concerns, we must always bear in mind that we are discussing real people who are suffering deep tragedy, many of whom will never fully recover from the effects, either physically or psychologically.

When something of this nature happens, there is a tendency to blame, but there is no one to blame for these tragedies. We describe them as acts of God, so perhaps we can place the blame there. However, no government, person or organisation is to blame. We can question the capacity to respond, predict or prepare for such a tragedy, but we cannot blame people for the tragedy itself.

Massive destruction has taken place in six of the most northerly districts of North-Western Frontier Province and five districts in Azad, Jammu and Kashmir, including the provincial capital. The Minister of State said the death toll is in excess of 20,000 but reports suggest it could be as high as 40,000. Nobody can say for certain but the final figure will undoubtedly be higher than current estimates. Calculations are made on the basis of facts that are available at the time but it is obvious more deaths and injuries will come to the knowledge of the authorities. The non-fatal casualties are indeterminable but the final figure in this regard may be as high as 100,000. Where does one draw the line in categorising injuries? A person with a minor injury, for example, might be regarded as a non-fatal casualty.

It is of significant concern that many of the fatalities were children. Every society will protect its children as a first line of defence. In the past, the safety of children and women was prioritised when, for example, a ship was sinking. On this occasion, unfortunately, children are high on the casualty list because they were at school at the time the earthquake struck. As the Minister of State observed, the grief of their parents is incalculable. One can only offer one's sympathies to the people affected. Like other Members, I offer my sympathy also to members of the Pakistani community, which has made an invaluable contribution to Irish society and our economic recovery. Irish people's response to the tragedy should recognise that contribution.

I welcome the Government's contribution of €3 million to the relief effort. Will the Minister of State clarify that this money comes from the special emergency fund rather than the Third World fund? There was concern in the aftermath of the St. Stephen's Day tsunami that relief money should not be taken from the Government's allocation to the Third World. I assume the money being donated in the aftermath of this latest tragedy will be taken from a separate emergency fund.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The budget line for this relief effort is from devoted emergency assistance resources. Of the funding allocated for relief in the wake of the St. Stephen's Day tsunami, €10 million came from the existing emergency fund and an additional €10 million was sanctioned by the Department of Finance, bringing the total contribution to €20 million. In this case, it will not be necessary to seek additional finance because money is available for this particular purpose. In general, a much more enhanced level of funding in the emergency and recovery fund will be required in future because we have seen how it has been stretched this year.

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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My concerns in this regard arise from my awareness of the situation in Africa. In Ghana, for example, which does not have any serious hunger problems, most of the rural population are living on $1 a day. On a visit earlier this year, I met some Irish missionaries who have worked there for 40 or 50 years and who outlined the difficulties encountered by the people there on a daily basis. I also visited an AIDS clinic and hospital. The need for assistance to combat the AIDS problem in Africa is so profound that any statement which attempts to express that need is insufficient because it is beyond words. I saw young children dying of AIDS and children orphaned through the death of their parents from AIDS.

I also visited the UN support team, which receives funding from the Irish Government for its work. There is a need for an evaluation of the work undertaken by the UN, a wealthy organisation of which, like all such organisations, there must be careful monitoring of how it applies its funds. The UN requires the same level of examination as we apply to the Government in terms of ensuring we get value for money. There is no desire that the UN's front-line staff should be on the bread line but they must be responsive to the situations they are assigned to manage.

Ireland has earned a strong international reputation for responding generously to emergency humanitarian crises globally. As a result, we have a level of influence beyond our size in respect of humanitarian issues. We must use this influence within the UN to promote a better and more organised response and a new approach to dealing with disasters such as this. Like the peacekeeping forces that come together over a period of time under the auspices of the UN, there is no reason a mechanism could not be put in place whereby emergency forces could be drawn from different countries, ready to move to a disaster when summoned by the UN. A section of the Army could be trained in this area and made ready to respond as part of a co-ordinated UN response to a disaster.

The logistical difficulties in regard to such missions are well known. Emergency aid, food, clothing and so on are transported by the Red Cross and other organisations but there are often major difficulties in distributing that aid to remote regions. Helicopters have been used to some effect in recent times but problems remain. As was the case in the aftermath of many other disasters, questions have been asked about the efficiency of the response to the earthquake. We in the West have a special duty towards the Third World, where most disasters occur, to be prepared to respond immediately rather than worrying about interfering with a particular government's autonomy.

The UN must be on call and immediately available with a rapid response and prepared programme to deal with the situation. As others have said, the aftermath of these types of disasters is predictable. We know there will be flooding in South America next year and there will be a serious earthquake somewhere in the Middle East. The UN must take responsibility way beyond what it is currently doing so it can respond effectively to such foreseen emergencies.

We all offer our sympathy to those affected by the severe flooding in Central America, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan. The Government has made a contribution of €1 million to the relief efforts following this disaster. I have never visited this area but have a great interest in it. Having read extensively about the region, I am aware of how vast and underdeveloped much of it is and that some of the mountain areas are largely inaccessible. Having read in great detail several books on Ché Guevara, one has almost an intimate knowledge of his time in Bolivia in the mountains where he could remain for so long without being identified. It is so bleak and so removed from what we regard as normal that the difficulties experienced there are special. A response to meet that situation should be made available and ready by the authorities.

On 11 October the UN launched a €272 million flash appeal for the south Asian earthquake. This covers the life saving and early recovery activities for the six months emergency phase in a remote region with enormous logistical difficulties where landslides have cut off many roads. Access is possible only by foot and helicopter. More than 80% of buildings have been destroyed in some areas. Priority needs include shelter, winter size tents, plastic sheets, blankets, mattresses, nutrition, pre-cooked can food, high energy biscuits and survival rations, medicines, antibiotics, typhoid medicine, first aid and surgical kits, water purification tablets and transport, mostly helicopters.

Heavy rain has made much of the city uninhabitable and mudslides make access to those in need very difficult. General access to the area is incredibly difficult. Only one small road is open for light vehicles. They are dependent on heavy lifting logistics equipment, helicopters and air lifting logistics capacity which are critical for lifesaving assistance. One of the most urgent needs is shelter material for the 2.5 million homeless.

Medical care is also required immediately as most of the hospitals and health care centres have been destroyed. Food and clean water are also in short supply in many towns and villages in Pakistan administered Kashmir and the north western frontier province, the most affected areas. The towns have been totally wiped out. UN agencies are already on the ground bringing in convoys of relief. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has also begun distributing basic relief supplies to up to 100,000 people.

I look forward to the Minister of State's reply.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I extend my sincere sympathies to the Government and people of Pakistan on the appalling tragedy. The Pakistan community in Ireland has been greatly distressed by that tragedy and some members of that community are good friends of mine.

To take up a point made by Deputy Neville, on a day when the Irish Government has produced its White Paper on the draft EU constitution, a significant element of which refers to the EU's development of its foreign policy, it is extraordinary, as Deputy Neville has said, given the absolute predictability of these earthquakes that we — not particularly Ireland but other countries — have not been able to pursue with the same vigour evident in the sale and purchase of arms a coherent plan to address disasters which come with frightening rapidity.

I have no doubt there is a grand plan available for the inevitable earthquake that is expected to occur on the west coast of America in the not too distant future. It is a great pity that the poorer countries of the world, many of which have experienced awful disasters in recent years, have to experience the trauma of what the people of Pakistan are experiencing. It must be possible, as Deputy Neville and others have said, for a rapid response arrangement to be available rather than have to listen to the pleadings of media journalists, explain that a particular pathway is not negotiable while people are sleeping on mattresses on the ground and on the streets and waiting for days on end for their own government to respond. No national government on its own is able to respond to a natural disaster such as has been experienced in Asia or in South America.

I urge the House to consider how it can contribute to developing the foreign policy of the European Union in a co-ordinated way. Ireland is among the most enlightened communities in the world and is in a position to react better than most. We certainly have the financial capacity to react. Let us set our jealousies, if any, aside on occasions such as this. We cannot have children starving, people dying of thirst and hunger.

We have seen hundreds of children crushed under badly constructed buildings. Would it be possible for the world professional community, such as architects, surveyors and engineers to make their professional expertise available to poorer countries or to develop new building technologies so buildings in Turkey, Bam and Pakistan do not collapse like a house of card or dominos? If they did nothing else, that kind of contribution would be welcome.

I compliment the Government on its speedy response. The NGOs will do the job they have always done and do it extremely well and the International Red Cross will not be found wanting. While planning is required, the official international community, through the United Nations and the European Union, is required to do it. Earlier today I met some people from Ethiopia and I have just left a meeting with some people from Burma, all of whom have experienced their own disasters. The story is the same the world over but the lessons have not been learned. It is high time that Ireland, as a country with moral authority which does not have a vested interest in the territorial interests of any particular country other than our own, exerted serious moral direction on the rest of the world to ensure this kind of disaster does not occur again.

I extend my sympathies to all those affected by the disasters in Asia and South America and urge that Ireland become a pioneer in preparing a disaster plan which inevitably will be required on a fairly regular basis.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Foreign Affairs; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all Members on a cross-party basis for the intelligent, sympathetic and insightful contributions made in the debate.

I was struck particularly by the contribution of the last speaker, Deputy Carey, who urged that Ireland should lead the process of discussion, negotiation and hard change at a UN and international level in terms of how Ireland will respond in future to disasters of this kind. I am uniquely aware of this given that I am just one year in my job. In that year there has been a crisis in Niger, we have had the tsunami, the whole issue of food security in the sub-Saharan Sahel region and the flooding in Central America. They beg not only for a domestic response but an international response that is coherent and focused on the job to be done.

Ireland has led the way in regard to the crisis response mechanism that exists at a domestic and international level. I do not say that to take credit for this Government or any other Government. This response has been built up carefully in our aid programme over a number of years ranging from former Ministers of State who contributed to the debate, Deputies Burton, O'Donnell, and many others, including, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, who have made an enormous contribution to our aid programme.

Ireland is regarded seriously in terms of our response to these crises. In 1999 when the OECD conducted its peer group review, Ireland ranked "among the cutting edge of development policy" and was singled out for praise in regard to the manner in which it approached the emergency response and recovery. It is not the case that we are faltering or lagging behind in this area. We are up there with the best in the world in terms of utilising best practice. Deputies have asked how we can leverage the level of expertise we have brought to bear as a small player with a strong moral voice in these matters and transmute it into the international response, which is acknowledged to be clearly wanting.

Mr. Jan Egeland, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, which is the lead UN agency for such crises, has acknowledged that the crisis response mechanism is deeply stretched at this time. This is not least because of the many and varied crises it has had to address this year.

In conjunction with the UK, we led a study into crisis emergency response mechanisms which confirmed that the Irish response has been very good. A few weeks ago, I attended the UN summit with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. While there, I attended a round-table meeting with Jan Egeland and other UN officials. Mr. Egeland has made a proposal for reforming the central emergency revolving fund or CERF facility. The fund, which is loan-based, not grant-based, stands at €40 million. Mr. Egeland's proposal was that this would become a grant-based standing fund of €500 million. It would provide the financial mechanism to cope with the enormous financial and logistical demands on the UN and individual countries — in this case Pakistan — when natural disasters, including earthquakes, occur. We fully support the proposed reform of the CERF mechanism within a tight timeframe.

However CERF is reformed, it should not supplant or take away from existing funds available for emergencies. At the UN summit in New York, the United Kingdom signalled its support by stating it would make a minimum contribution of €40 million to such a fund, presumably over a number of years. The Swedish Government also indicated that it would pledge a minimum amount of €14 million to the same fund.

In the coming days, I hope to be in a position to signal the minimum pledge Ireland will be able to make to that fund. I am anxious to make this pledge to indicate our general spirit of goodwill towards the creation and management of such a fund. In common with other donor countries, we have issues about how such a fund should be managed and, critically, that it should not take away from existing funds available from UN and other agencies.

I will soon be able to signal that we will participate in the emergency fund, which will have the flexibility to respond to these crises where the immediate requirement is cash. We often hear people of goodwill providing material contributions which are not really effective. Earlier this year, we saw the scenes in Banda Aceh where large amounts of unwanted clothes were stored in sheds. It is important to apply clear principles when it comes to providing humanitarian assistance. In many respects, cash is the best contribution an individual or a country can make in such circumstances. By its nature, cash can be used to deploy quickly the necessary food and other supplies required following crises of this kind.

I was struck by the contribution of my constituency colleague, Deputy O'Connor, who said there is a real danger of donor fatigue following the appeals for aid in Pakistan and Central America. People may not respond as warmly and generously to these appeals as they did to earlier ones. Clearly, there have been many such appeals this year. When the enormous commercial push of the Christmas season approaches in this wealthy country, I ask individuals and businesses to set aside some money for humanitarian appeals that are being launched by the non-governmental organisations for Central America and, more importantly, Pakistan given the death toll there. I appeal to people to respond generously, perhaps by curtailing the normal spending spree over the Christmas period. They should take into consideration the awful situation faced by survivors of the earthquake in Pakistan and the mudslides in Central America.

I know that the Irish people will respond as best they can. The Government wishes to prompt such generosity from them, given the strong contribution made here by the Pakistani community as well as the wider Muslim community in Ireland. This is a unique opportunity for us to show our solidarity with the Muslim population of Ireland who, following various global events in recent years, may feel that they are placed apart. Let me assure them that they are not.

Deputy Murphy referred to Japan, which illustrates the issue of preparedness. There are large coastal protection barriers on the west coast of Japan designed to protect that country from a maritime disaster such as a tsunami. Large concrete structures have been placed in the sea to prevent such a disaster. In addition, Japanese offices and homes contain early-warning systems to detect earth tremors. Systems are also in place there to prevent buildings collapsing during an earthquake. It is not rocket science but Japan has mastered the art of disaster preparedness, given the country's vulnerability to earthquakes.

That preparedness demonstrates the importance of the development agenda. While poor countries do not have such systems, rich countries like Japan do. I am not saying that Japan is beyond the reach of an earthquake, but the risks have been minimised thanks to the early-warning systems that have been put in place. That preparedness is due to Japanese planning methods and the country's wealth. We need to bring such planning methods to less developed countries which we assist through our aid programmes. They need to be helped in coping with the threat of natural disasters.

In January, I visited Mauritius for the conference of small island development states in the wake of the tsunami disaster. Through our aid programme we funded significant research on a new environmental vulnerability index which will help policymakers to decide what factors make countries vulnerable to such phenomena and how they can be addressed.

I commend Deputy Gormley on his point on the environment. There are issues we can master concerning the physical environment to minimise the risks involved.

I assure Deputy Burton and Deputy Michael D. Higgins that, as regards broader Government policy in the development sphere, we are closely examining the possibility of expanding our overseas aid programme. We are looking at the issue of geographical spread in connection with our ability to learn and help other people around the world. Specifically, we are examining the possibility of establishing an aid programme in a Latin American country. We will be evaluating that matter carefully. We are not neglecting that region but our primary focus is on Africa. Deputy Neville is correct in that nothing we disperse on the disaster in Pakistan, or any future disasters, will divert funds from our ongoing, long-term development programme. The latter is primarily focused on the least-developed countries of Africa where the world's greatest poverty exists and, thus, people's needs are more acute.

Deputy Coveney spoke passionately and said that Ireland has real credibility in the areas of human rights and development. As Minister of State, I assure the House that the issues of human rights, environmental vulnerability and crisis response will be to the forefront of our actions as we expand our aid programme. We have set a date of 2012 to achieve the UN target figure of 0.7% of gross national product. We will achieve that target date but we must plan our expenditure carefully to do so. Ireland must be a leading voice internationally. Ireland is a small country that is punching way above its weight globally in the development and diplomatic spheres. To do that we must be a leading advocate for best practice and timely response led by the UN asserting the primacy of the UN in all situations of international conflict or crises such as we have seen in Pakistan.

I again thank all the Members for their very generous contributions. I am greatly encouraged by the discussion and by the points made my many of them. It is ironic that some powerful countries spend huge amounts of money on defence commitments and yet none of these amounts are available to help when a disaster occurs. It poses a very serious question to those countries and not to Ireland, which has had a leading role in the area of disarmament and development. This is a tribute not just to this Government but also to all previous Governments that have contributed to our development co-operation programme. I thank all the former Ministers who contributed.