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Top UN relief official draws lessons from Myanmar cyclone aid effort

Top UN relief official draws lessons from Myanmar cyclone aid effort

John Holmes, USG for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator
All nations need outside help when faced by a major natural disaster, according to the United Nations’ top humanitarian official, commenting today on the relief operations following Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

“No nation, rich or poor, can go it alone when confronted by a natural disaster of the magnitude of Cyclone Nargis,” John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs writes in an op-ed published in The Washington Post.

“It would have been much better, not least for the survivors, if the Government of Myanmar had recognized the value of an international presence from the start.”

The cyclone, which struck in early May, claimed nearly 140,000 lives and seriously affected some 2.4 million people.

Mr. Holmes stresses that the aid operation in Myanmar “had to be about helping vulnerable people in need, not about politics.”

“In this post-Iraq age,” he writes, “I am concerned that humanitarians are often pressured to choose between the hammer of forced intervention and the anvil of perceived inaction. Was there a realistic alternative to the approach of persistent negotiation and dialogue that we pursued? I do not believe so. Nor have I met anyone engaged in the operations who believes that a different approach would have gotten more aid to more people more quickly.”

The Under-Secretary-General goes on to say that there can be a role for humanitarian intervention, but it must only be used as a last resort, “when all else has been tried and the only alternative is death and suffering on a mass scale.”

Mr. Holmes also writes that the post-cyclone efforts also showed a new model of humanitarian partnership, citing the cooperation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Government of Myanmar and the UN.

“This may prove the most important – and, I hope, enduring – lesson of the cyclone response, with implications for how we respond, anywhere, in the future,” he writes. “Given that eight of the 10 worst natural disasters last year occurred in Asia, this represents a life-saving investment, where the United Nations is helping to build local capacity.”

The importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness was also highlighted in Myanmar, according to Mr. Holmes, who is also the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator.

“Simple, low-cost measures – local evacuation plans, shelters, community early-warning systems – have saved tens of thousands of lives in neighbouring Bangladesh when it has been faced with similarly devastating cyclones. We need to help the people of Myanmar strengthen their resilience and reduce their vulnerability. Rebuilding better, to minimize future disaster risks, is a top priority.”

Mr. Holmes says that he is confident that the overwhelming majority of survivors of the cyclone have received help, even if many of them need much more assistance. He also stresses that a much-feared second wave of deaths from starvation and disease failed to materialize, which he describes as no small achievement given the fact that 75 per cent of hospitals and clinics were effectively destroyed in the affected areas.

“In coming years we can expect to see more, and more intense, weather-related natural disasters as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. We must be better prepared and must cooperate as neighbours and an international community in meeting this challenge,” he concludes.