By Julian Borger, The Guardian
International development minister says capacity to respond to disasters is not keeping up with pace of crises
The UN will be unable to cope with the human cost of natural disasters expected over the next five years without more funds and urgent reforms, a government minister warned today.
By 2015, it is predicted that the number of people around the world who will need to be rescued from natural catastrophes will rise by more than 100 million as more hurricanes, typhoons, floods and mudslides triggered by climate change add to the toll caused by earthquakes and man-made disasters.
Gareth Thomas, the international development minister, said that the international community’s capacity to respond had improved markedly in the past few years but was not keeping up with the accelerating pace of crises, as the Haiti earthquake in January made clear.
“It’s about five years since the last review of humanitarian disasters took place and we’ve had one major natural disaster a year since then,” Thomas said. “The unpredictable nature of these events is no excuse. We need a system that is fit for purpose, properly funded and has the right people with the rights skills in place.
“If we had two big natural disasters at the same time could the UN handle the kind of response needed? Our worry is that the system would be creaking, to be generous.”
About 250 million people a year need urgent humanitarian assistance as a result of hurricanes, typhoons, floods and mudslides, according to an Oxfam study. It predicted that the number would rise by 50% in the next five years to 375 million.
Thomas will raise some of Britain’s concerns at a UN meeting on Haitian reconstruction on Wednesday. The deaths of UN staff in the earthquake hamstrung the response and slowed down the arrival of aid.
In February, a leaked memo by Sir John Holmes, the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) revealed serious shortcomings. Thomas said part of the problem was money.
The UN’s central emergency response fund (CERF), stands at about $500m. Thomas believes it needs to double by 2013.
Britain is currently the principal contributor to CERF, having paid in $64m last year, but many other rich nations put in little or nothing. According to OCHA figures, the US will pay $10m next year after paying nothing last year. Italy put in $1.5m for this year. France did not contribute last year and offered nothing this year.
“We need countries with strong economies to dig deep and ensure the CERF is fully funded,” Thomas said.
Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director, said: “It is essential, even during tough economic times for the world, to put up the resources into saving lives as well as investing in reducing the risk to vulnerable communities threatened by climate-related disasters.”
Thomas said another critical issue was the recruitment and deployment of experts in such a way that the international community is better able to respond to Haiti-like cataclysms at short notice.
“Our sense is that the pool of talent is not particularly wide and we need to do more to help the UN have a larger pool of people who can be drawn on,” he said.
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