REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
5 February 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration
Elizabeth Hoff, Representative for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Syria, taking part by telephone from Damascus, said the health situation in the country had progressively worsened in the last six months and there was heavy fighting in the rural area around Damascus. She added that access to areas was constantly changing from week to week and IDPs were living in unfinished buildings without windows and doors.
Following a meeting with the Health Minister yesterday she was informed that the National Hospital had been destroyed in the last few days. Overall, 55 per cent of the public hospitals had been damaged and more than one-third of all hospitals were out of service. Over two-thirds of the ambulances were damaged and it was not possible to provide new ones as they were being used for military purposes. There was also a clear issue with the availability of medication, as with moving drugs and medical equipment around the country.
The WHO’s early warning system was functioning and there had been an increase in reported Hepatitis A cases, a disease linked to failures in water and sanitation. Vaccinations for the condition were now to take place in IDP shelters, where the problem was the biggest. More doses of the vaccine would need to be sourced and health education was also required. Reports of diagnoses of leishmaniasis also continued to come in and it was thought that large movements of persons were behind the spread of conditions such as this which were once seen only in specific areas.
A list of essential medicines had been compiled that were needed for the next six months, at a total cost of over $100 million. Sanctions did not apply to humanitarian aid in place, but it affected the country’s ability to procure the medicines needed. For example, the Syrian government had put forward $2.5 million to buy new blood safety tests yet the WHO (on their behalf) had not been able to transfer the money to complete the purchase.
Another point of concern was that it was not just necessary to get medical supplies to opposition areas. It was also necessary to ensure there were doctors and health personnel there to use them. Reports were being received, for example, that it was almost impossible for health staff to get into Damascus. A lack of fuel and constant electricity cuts were also blocking the provision of regular treatments.
Answering questions she said that it was a challenge to access rebel-controlled areas, reiterating that these were hundreds of disparate groups, not one single entity to negotiate with. She also said that many hospitals had security staff on the premises, meaning that members of the opposition would not go there. This had lead to an increase in visits from women asking for bandages and antibiotics, suggesting some of the injured were being cared for at home.
Asked about the essential drugs needed she said the disease profile for the country from 2011 was being used as a basis and the list was available on request. She also said that, as an example, 50 per cent of the doctors in Homs had left and this was probably underreported. On a recent visit she saw that many surgeons had left, possibly due to cases where, rather than attend hospitals containing security staff, doctors were being approached at home to treat the injured.
She explained that the biggest concern for WHO was the breakdown of the water and sanitation system and the increasing numbers of water-borne disease cases which were being picked up on the early warning systems. There were also increasing numbers of cases of diarrhoea, which the Ministry of Health was trying to take action against.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that, in this regard, four trucks containing sodium hydrochlorite had left Jordan for Homs and Aleppo on Sunday (3 February). This was part of a larger project to ensure safe access to drinking water across the country in the coming weeks and months.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the Syria Humanitarian Bulletin from OCHA had been published overnight with an updated overview of the situation and the humanitarian response in Syria.
At almost the two-year mark since the beginning of the conflict, the catastrophic humanitarian crisis continued to deepen. This time, OCHA was issuing a warning: if the violence continued unabated, we could, in the short term, see considerably more than the currently four million in need of urgent assistance, and more than two million internally displaced in Syria.
In the face of this human tragedy, organisations were struggling to reach more people, in more places, with more aid, but the lack of access was still a major obstacle. It was needed to get to people both in Government and opposition controlled areas and, importantly, in disputed areas of active fighting. However, as had been heard recently, the UN was increasingly delivering aid in opposition controlled areas, and pushing ahead to deliver more, crossing fluid and changing lines of conflict.
To ensure that more people were reached, agencies were expanding their local partnerships from the current number of about 70 organizations, and the Government was urged to allow more international NGOs into Syria as partners.
Meanwhile, the plight of people caught up in the violence was exacerbated by overall economic decline. Syria’s GDP had contracted by nearly 30 per cent in the past two years (since March 2011), leading to significant economic losses across different sectors. Prices of food and fuel had gone up, reflecting limited supplies. Agricultural production had been devastated by the violence, and according to FAO, the production of wheat and barley dropped to less than two million tonnes in 2012, down from a normal level of 4-4.5 million tonnes per year prior to the crisis.
In response to this, the Kuwait conference last week saw pledges of more than $1.5 billion. This demonstrated the willingness of many Member States and private donors to come together to ensure that the humanitarian effort in the Syria crisis was not undermined by lack of funds. However, if agencies were to further scale up, pledges must be converted into committed and disbursed funds.
Answering questions he said that for humanitarian corridors to be a viable option then first their use needed to be defined, and questions on who would police them answered.
He also said that OCHA was mainly working out of Government-controlled areas, but that did not mean assistance was not being given to those in opposition areas. The front lines remained fluid, he underlined, and discussions were ongoing to reach an understanding with opposition leaders on distribution.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP was planning to reach 2.5 million people in the coming months. The food agency would gradually increase the number of beneficiaries to 1.75 million this month, then up to two million in March, reaching 2.5 million in April. The food basket would include eight commodities such as rice, bulgur, pasta, vegetable oil, lentils, salt, sugar, wheat and canned pulses providing up to 1,700 kilocalories per person per day.
WFP had recently received authorization to import fuel and wheat flour into Syria for humanitarian purposes. This was to allow WFP to import up to 2.5 million litres of fuel per month, including for transporting goods other than food on behalf of other agencies. WFP had started the import of fuel. The first consignment (almost 39,000 litres) arrived in Syria via Lebanon two weeks ago.
Preliminary results of the food needs assessment’s revalidation exercise indicated that inflation was up dramatically due to the rise in fuel prices, disruption of economic activity and suspension of trade with neighbouring countries. It was further eroding the purchasing power of households across the country.
In some areas visited by the assessment mission, the prices of most essential items, especially food and fuel, have risen by 200 percent, and the Syrian pound had been devalued by around 80 percent. The prices of milk, meat and chicken have risen as much as 300 percent in some areas.
Only 5 per cent of farmers surveyed were able to fully harvest winter crops maturing in early summer (wheat and barley); 20 per cent reported complete inability to harvest their crops; and 75 per cent reported losses of between 10 and 50 per cent.
WFP had stocks of approximately 7,000 metric tons of food inside Syria – as well as almost 200 metric tons of the specialized nutrition product Plumpy’doz to be provided soon to 36,000 children (Plumpy’doz is a supplementary food to combat moderate and acute malnutrition of children between the ages of 6-59 months).
Answering a question about aid getting to Azzas in northern Syria she said the area had been receiving assistance since April, in partnership with the Syrian Red Crescent. She also clarified that although access had been managed there were still many dangerous areas where this was not possible. The operational update available at the back of the room gave the full list of currently accessible locations. It was hoped that operations could be scaled up in February, step-by-step, increasing the numbers of people reached.
She also explained that 85 per cent of the people assisted by WFP were IDPs, the majority of which had left areas controlled by the opposition. The concern of the WFP was not the origin of those in need, she said, just their current location and how help could be given to them.
The WFP was responsible for logistics amongst a number of agencies, she said, and had moved 90 metric tonnes of relief items recently.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said a large amount of material had now reached Azzas and work continued to do more. He also indicated, in answer to a question, that there were 14,977 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP had resumed deliveries of food and nutrition products to the North. On 2 and 3 February, seven boats loaded with a total of close to 600mt of commodities departed from Mopti port to Niafunké district in Timbuktu region (communes of Banikane, Djanké, Ngorkou and Soumpi) on the river Niger.
These commodities were to allow provision of a monthly food ration to 34,900 beneficiaries, among which 2,970 children aged under 5 and 610 pregnant and lactating women will benefit from blanket feeding rations for the prevention of malnutrition.
Another 1,960mt were scheduled for departure in the coming days to Goundam, Diré and Timbuktu districts of Timbuktu region for distributions with partners Handicap International, Solidarités International and Islamic Relief. These first deliveries represent the resumption of WFP food assistance to the North since the outbreak of conflict on 10 January.
Rounds of food distribution were reaching completion for the 12,000 IDPs and host households in Bamako and the number of beneficiaries was being increased to 23,000 persons for the next round to respond to the needs. Furthermore, distributions of food rations to another 65,000 IDPs and host households were ongoing in Ségou, Mopti and Kayes.
The high water levels of the river Niger this year allowed for river transport to remain possible in the coming months. To this day, road transportation remained blocked between Mopti and northern Mali, for both commercial and humanitarian transport, critically affecting vulnerable populations’ access to food. The disruption of market supplies in the North was a major concern and could further endanger populations in need, with risks of an acute food security and nutrition crisis outbreak in the coming weeks.
Answering questions Ms. Momal-Vanian said the deployment of UN troops to Mali would be a decision made by the Security Council which was to meet tomorrow to consider the situation in Mali.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was intensifying the digging of emergency latrines and increasing its hygiene promotion activities at Doro camp, one the refugee camps established in South Sudan's Upper Nile State over the past year for more than 115,000 refugees fleeing violence in Sudan’s Blue Nile State.
IOM was currently working on the construction of an additional 336 latrines in the villages of Jumjum and Ingasana. At this point 200 had been completed. Additional community hygiene promoters were also being deployed and water tanks being installed to ensure that people in outlying areas of the camp get better access to clean water and sanitation, making them less vulnerable to the spread of waterborne diseases that have already broken out in other camps last year.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration said (IOM) was continuing to draw attention to the needs of those affected by the recent hurricane in the Philippines, particularly in the area of healthcare where access to primary services remained difficult.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration said (IOM) was currently transporting over 125 metric tonnes of emergency assistance including plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, beds, mattresses and mosquito nets to an estimated 100,000 people displaced by fighting in north Darfur’s Jebel Amir district.
Labour migrants from neighbouring Chad had also been caught up in the fighting, with many fleeing back to Chad and to the West Darfur State town of El Geniena. IOM was particularly concerned about the plight of some 1,500 destitute migrants currently living without shelter or assistance. Others had found temporary refuge in some of the town’s mosques
IOM Chad was also working with the Chadian authorities to provide emergency assistance including transport to more than 1,500 Chadian gold miners who had crossed the border from Darfur. IOM Chad had also deployed a team in Adre, a mountainous area close to the border with Darfur, to monitor the new influx of the fleeing migrant workers.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Conference on Disarmament held a public meeting this morning, which was to focus on how to reach a consensus on a programme of work for this year.
From Monday (11 February), two committees were to begin three-week sessions, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. A background release was to be released on Thursday afternoon.
She also mentioned the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation tomorrow (6 February) saying factsheets from the WHO were available at the back of the room. She also reminded correspondents of the resolution passed by the General Assembly on 21 December 2012 which called on countries to eliminate female genital mutilation in the differing forms it takes and provide sufficient resources to police laws against it, which the Secretary-General had called historic.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said there was a press conference on, “Chad: humanitarian challenges and opportunities,” today, (5 February) at 12.00 noon in Press Room 1. The speakers were Thomas Gurtner, Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator, Chad, and General Oki Mahamat Dagache, Special Representative of the President of the Republic of Chad for Humanitarian Affairs. Tomorrow (6 February) at 14:00, also in Press Room 1 was a press conference on, “The humanitarian situation in Mali and in the Sahel,” with David Gressly, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Sahel, he added.
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The webcast for this briefing is available at http://webtv.un.org/media/geneva-press-briefings/