Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Typhoons: What's happening in Asia Pacific?

What's happening in Asia Pacific? The region is tragically living up to its reputation as one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world with four near-simultaneous disasters – devastation from Typhoon Ketsana and torrential rains in the Philippines and Viet Nam in South East Asia, and a strong earthquake followed by a tsunami on the Samoan islands, in the Pacific. 

In addition, at the time of writing, a 7.9 earthquake was recorded on Wednesday 30 September, off the West coast of Indonesia, about 50 kilometres from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.  Buildings were damaged but there are no reports of deaths or injuries, so far. A tsunami watch was immediately issued for Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia. 

We have had people on the ground working closely with the national Red Cross societies in the region. Our communicators were dispatched to or already positioned in the disaster zones and we are feeding the media machine as best we can. There is a special page on our website dedicated to the whole region which also includes useful Google maps. There is a twitter stream too and on the news side of our website we have issued reports and press releases (already 3 different articles today).

Our colleagues in the region are now flat out for about one week now. The time differences make it almost impossible to rest as the US media (for instance) wake up when Asia Pacific goes to bed but during these days nobody sleeps much. And Europe of course is sandwiched in the middle.

These disasters have taken the lives of hundreds of people across the region, sowed devastation, chaos and economic hardship, and are severely testing the mettle and disaster preparedness of both governments and humanitarian actors. For their part, Red Cross Societies in the region immediately mobilized thousands of volunteers and staff skilled in disaster management. Thanks to early warning systems, many communities at risk were evacuated ahead of the Typhoon and the tsunami; shelters were set up, pre-positioned relief stocks distributed as well as water and food. 

While the loss of life could have been much greater this should not belittle the devastation caused and the massive economic and social losses which will have to be regained.

Volunteers among the first to respond 

The fact that Red Cross avolunteers are based in the communities affected, close to the people, makes it possible to mobilize emergency help immediately, and to respond to four large emergencies at the same time. 

Some 135 Samoa Red Cross volunteers are currently distributing clean water, first aid supplies, tarpaulins and other relief to affected families. These specially-trained volunteers initially provided early warnings to people in coastal settlements to stay clear of beaches, they supported evacuation efforts in and around Apia, and are managing three camps for the displaced. They are also participating in needs assessments. According to officials, at least 79 people have died and it is estimated that 60 villages and 15,000 people have been affected by this disaster. Tremors continue to shake the country, and tsunami alarms are still sounding.

In Tonga, reports indicate that the Niuas Islands and several villages were flooded, preliminary figures put the death toll at seven, with three people missing. The Tonga Red Cross has mobilized its volunteers to provide emergency assistance and conduct further assessments.

In Viet Nam, the death toll stands at 38 to date, with 10 people reported missing and at least 81 injured. An estimated three million people have been affected. Flooding has been the worst in 45 years in some provinces (Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Kon Tum) and extensive damage is reported to rice paddies, sugar cane, vegetables and aquaculture. Access to flooded communes and mountainous districts is very difficult. Red Cross staff and volunteers continue to manage shelters and provide emergency relief to affected families.

In the Philippines, still reeling from the devastation brought by Typhoon Ketsana, the current death toll stands at 246 people, according to official figures, with 38 missing and five injured. Some two million people are estimated to have been affected, with nearly 570,000 displaced.

Thousands of Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) volunteers have been working round the clock since 26 September in search and rescue operations, delivering food and other relief items to survivors, psychosocial support to traumatized families and first aid to the sick and injured.


Monday, September 28, 2009

To all things there is a season...

“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled”. Myself and HDEOpener-in-chief Conneally are (mis)quoting this line to one another with increasing frequency these days as the spider of wisdom spins her silken thread through his beard, or (to complete my ludicrous analogy) the piranha of baldness feasts upon my former crowing glory.

Sorry, enough experimental scribbling. The point is, we’re none of us getting any younger and I for one am wondering when, or if, I will every see myself through the eyes of others. When I dance (rare enough the spectacle) I see, across the dance floor of my mind’s eye, a thin, elegant mover, sans belly, sans wonky knee, sans white man’s overbite. To paraphrase Sting, when I dance, angels run and hide their bling. 

But with relentless, ruthless certainty, time is ticking. The arrival of children in one’s life seems to only speed the process. You’d think it would be the opposite. The new vaults of memories being filled: you wake at first light to see their sweet faces reflecting the light like soft new plums, you rush to complete the day and fall into dreamless sleep, but no, it’s the other way round. You become more acutely aware of your mortality, and how fast your are burning your allotted years. 

Hot girls may still look at you in the street, but (indulge me, eh?) perhaps only thinking “wow, what a good looking guy he must have been” or “hmm, expensive suit, but still somehow casual. Stylish, I bet he writes poetry”.

And of course there’s the feeling that there is just so much to do and it’s impossible to keep track without losing the… where was I?

I won’t give away any state secrets, but if you add together the ages of HDEOpeners numbers one and two you get a pretty good score, not three figures of course, nowhere near it, but the hard point is we are already both past the sell-by label which would have been slapped on us had we been born a century earlier. As it is, thanks to pills, jabs, sewage pipes, clean water, something approaching peace in Europe and basic health knowledge, we can both look forward to double the 1909 score or close to it.

Or not, of course. We still have to contend with weird and scary new viruses, fanatics who know God’s mind better than he/she, mutated cells, microbes and something as mundane as the number 7 bus.

Five short autumns ago a wise Irishman (ah, but is there any other sort) asked me was I married, did I have kids? I gave the savvy smile I’d been perfecting all through my thirties and answered in the negative. “Well don’t leave it too late”, he practically snapped at me - despite this being a) a formal reception (partially in his honour, I concede) and b) the first time we’d ever met.

Five autumns on and I have me jewel and darlin’ wife and two princesses and while it’s a bigger struggle that I ever thought it could be I still start and end each day (exhausted, middle-aged) but with the almost euphoric rush that I am still, against all the odds, here. Alive. Thriving. Putting on the pounds of weight and wisdom. Livin’, lovin’, keepin’ on.

Even though I was left with two roaring and hungry daughters this sparrow-fart, when herself had a doc’s appointment, things still conspired to be beautiful. Somehow, me and the lassies ended up standing on the dressing table, toothbrushes in hand, singing Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Hallelujah” to our reflections. (Yes, we had indeed been watching Shrek with our porridge, well spotted).

And yes I rue and miss and ache for the days of sitting at the zinc for hours lifting tubes of white-collared blackness, but I have that t-shirt and very occasionally I can still wear it. I don’t miss it that much, truth be told, and wouldn’t trade it for the robes I wear now.

We made it. Johnny, David, Dave, Des, Kayleigh, Colm, and more didn’t. We live for them. Our friends from teenage years who lived fast, or at least too quick.

They never made it to Georgia, beautiful Georgia, that scrunch of mountainous mayhem by the Black Sea, which this blog knows well. One of the most poignant of the many toasts made by Georgians, is the toast for the dead. It may seem inauspicious, even rude, to bring up this taboo at a social occasion. But when a skilled Tamada (toastmaster) does it, it's poetry. You can see, feel, almost hear the beloved ones enter the room and stand by your shoulder. A silence, a tear, and the feast continues, each one appreciating the other more.

Getting older really is a privilege. I’m just, just beginning to glimpse it. Bring it on.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Climate Change: The G20 can do plenty

Dear G20 leaders,

If necessity is the mother of invention, we should be looking forward to a breathtakingly innovative agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in December. Such an agreement would not only outline how we should curb greenhouse gas emissions, but also how we could realistically adapt to climate change, and help countries cope with its negative effects.

The increasing threat to life and livelihood posed by climate change is already palpable and the need for effective action agreed in Copenhagen is increasingly urgent. Yet the lack of progress in ongoing climate negotiations raises concern as to whether world governments will be able to reach meaningful agreement in December.

For those living on the frontline - the most vulnerable communities living in risk-prone parts of the world - every day wasted could mean a step closer to food or water insecurity; communities having to move to secure adequate and safe services; or even whole regions emptying as they become unable to sustain life.

Changes in the Arctic are accelerating global climate change. Scientists warn that if the Himalayan glaciers disappear, the impact would be felt by more than one billion people across Asia. What will African farmers do when floods wash away their crops as is happening these days in West Africa?

This might sound overdramatic. However, climate change is already increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme natural hazard events, especially floods, storms and droughts. Weather-related events are affecting or displacing more people every year. During the last decade on average 140 million people annually were affected by floods and storms, or two percent of the global population. All the scientific evidence suggests that these trends will continue and accelerate.

Of course the climate change issue is complex, and cannot be neatly separated from other factors such as population growth, urbanization and environmental decline – all of which are increasing risks to vulnerable communities. But those working in the humanitarian field – whether aid workers on the ground, high level advocates or those providing funds – understand all too well that climate change is now a major factor in the rising numbers of people affected by disasters and therefore in the increasing demand for lifesaving aid. Disasters driven by climate change cost lives here and now and they also have lasting effects that take us back to square one in the fight against poverty.

We are not helpless – far from it. Many of the humanitarian consequences of climate change can be averted or reduced. For example, cyclone preparedness programmes in Bangladesh and Mozambique have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and can be expanded to address the increased risk of heavy storms and floods.

Public hygiene campaigns which have improved health in many villages and cities can be upgraded to address climate change related risks like the spread of dengue and malaria. Upgraded care for the elderly during heat waves, planting trees against landslides and storm surges, fine-tuned water saving systems against droughts. There are a multitude of small and big solutions in our hands. We are committed to bring these solutions to the places where adaptation programmes are needed.

But the humanitarian system will need an overhaul to adapt to this new reality. Better balance must be achieved between the imperative to respond to acute humanitarian need and far greater investment in disaster risk reduction and preparedness measures in risk-prone countries. At the global level, we need to improve our risk-management systems to anticipate and respond better to future climate impacts. We also need to explore more innovative ways of sharing risk, perhaps through insurance schemes, to better protect people in the future.

Time is short. There is a unique opportunity to put in place a comprehensive global approach for climate change mitigation and adaptation. World leaders meeting at the UN in New York and at the G20 in Pittsburgh this month should help to lay the basis for an agreement. Let’s hope so, as the interests of many vulnerable populations depend on a strong agreement signed by all Governments in Copenhagen. The agreement may not tie down every detail, but it needs to be in place to ensure that all the fine words we have heard are followed up by meaningful action.


This opinion piece was put together with our colleagues over at the UN OCHA and has been distributed to various media, co signed by the heads of the two organizations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Climate Change - a Force for Global Unity?

This week is crucial in the countdown to the Copenhagen Climate Conference as world leaders gather for the UN Climate Summit in New York to hammer out details and nail down final positions. 

And welcome surprises could yet be in store with reports (against the grain) emerging about China and India taking decisive leadership on this crucial issue.
It could yet be that the threats posed by climate change will unite old foes, dissolve the fog of politics and cleanse the senses of the Great Polluters. And, leading the charge (and the change), the mighty multi-tasker himself, Barack Obama, gave a characteristically rousing and impassioned speech at the UN earlier today.

Get involved - your voice counts
The surprising thing is that many are just waking up to the fact that climate change is very much about people (and not just polar bears). People around the world are suffering the impacts of climate change right now.  Vulnerable communities, rich and poor, need to be assisted so they can protect themselves and better adapt to the known and unavoidable impacts down the road. 

(By way of anecdote - we ran out of room on our website last week so inundated were we with stories of flood disasters spanning the globe from Nepal, India, Turkey, Burkina Faso and Sudan among others. All of them unprecedented, affecting millions of people and causing countless millions worth of dollars in damages that will take years to rehabilitate. Nor does this under-estimated figure include the sizable development investments that have been lost and that will now have to be rebuilt from scratch - if the money can be raised, again).

One of the best Climate Change movements out there at the moment - in HDEO's humble opinion - is called Tck Tck Tck. (HDEO is a proud partner). It is an unprecedented global alliance of non-government organizations (including Oxfam, Greenpeace, WWF and many many others), trade unions, faith groups and people like you—all calling for an ambitious, fair and binding climate change agreement. 

There is little doubt that the Copenhagen conference next December is a defining moment in our contemporary history. In the face of such adversity the only option is to join forces, put our differences aside, and do something other than point the finger or drown in denial. It is a time to unite in solidarity. Time to act at the individual level. 
As John F. Kenney once said: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man.” 

And .... THIS just in from Google! And this from the Guardians of all that's good.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sex and War

Seeking a biological understanding to resolving conflict.

Biology is not destiny. But it sure explains a whole lot of human activity, as Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden describe in their book, Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (Benbella Books, 2008), which I strongly feel is a must read for anyone dealing with conflict prevention and resolution today.

Chimpanzees, our closest cousins, share more than 98 per cent of our DNA, and many of our social, and antisocial, behaviours. Most disturbingly, we are perhaps the only two species that deliberately torture and kill their own kind. The evolutionary success of genes that enhance team aggression by small groups of males on others, both male and female, have bequeathed both species' descendants a dark side.

Male team aggression, aided by reinforcing the cohesion of an in-group and dehumanising the out-group, is as essential for warfare and terrorism today as it was for raids on neighbouring troops by our ancient ancestors. Chimpanzee males move around their territory in groups of four or five, foraging and patrolling the boundaries of that territory. If they run into a similarly sized group from a neighbouring territory, both sides will make a lot of noise and bluster, but it rarely leads to a real fight.

If, however, the party finds a smaller group or a lone individual from the next-door troop, they sometimes attack with shocking cruelty, with, for example, some males holding their victim down while others rip flesh off the hapless animal, stomp on it, bite fingers off or tear testicles off. Sometimes such a raid has a clear biological logic to it: the males may haul off young females from their neighbours, a behaviour which is obviously going to be passed on to the next generation rather immediately. Other times, there is no straightforward reason for a particular event.

However, behaviour that is evolutionarily successful need not demonstrate its gene-passing benefit on every occasion. It is enough for such male team aggression to bring evolutionary rewards only sometimes, and as long as it isn't detrimental to the likelihood of an individual passing on its genes it can be a successful trait. A tendency to initiate violence when there are even numbers in a fight might not be a trait you get a chance to pass on, but a behaviour of attacking when the odds are in you favour clearly is.

What's this got to do with us humans? Well, apart from the ganging up on individuals that will be familiar to anyone who was ever picked on in the school yard, there is a lot here to explain our propensity for conflict more generally. It's not that modern human conflicts are about stealing the females of a neighbouring troop, of course, but the tendency toward certain unconscious behaviours we share with chimps are still with us, coded in our DNA, and that affects our actions in some predictable ways.

Look at how fighting forces have been arranged over the course of recorded history: from raiding parties to massive armies, the core military unit has not been a group of hundreds or thousands but a tight band of four or five men -- a "fireteam" in current lingo, the unit that the modern infantry is based on. This small, core group engaging in destructive team aggression is repeatedly successful in war because it is reinforced by a variety of different behaviours, including the camaraderie that naturally (key word there) develops between men in such conditions. Whether an infantryman in a first world army, a street gang member in a blood feud, or a terrorist about to use a passenger plane as a mass murder weapon, the size of the basic attack unit is more or less the same, and there's a reason for that.

The authors go on to develop other aspects of evolutionary psychology and apply them to modern warfare, taking the reader through the World Wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iraq, Lebanon, modern terrorism and much else besides. For example, our innate desire for revenge in certain situations and our tendency to distort the scale of threats under particular conditions can cause extreme, disproportionate and even self-damaging responses to attacks of far smaller size -- clear in the US reaction to 9/11. Our vulnerability to in-group/out-group mentality is also vital to warfare: dehumanising the enemy is as common to war as blood.

Again, the idea is not that modern soldiers or modern political leaders are after plunder and booty like barbarian raiders or chimpanzees -- though surely some consciously are in some current conflicts -- but that the underlying nature of human warfare is driven by factors of evolutionary psychology that are irrevocably part of us all.

Of course, no biological explanation excuses evil acts. But it is essential to conflict prevention and resolution to understand how these natures are in every human being: "It is tempting, but misleading, to try to make the rest of the world 'normal' by demonising Hitler. An evolutionary approach to understanding evil is at the same time both more humbling and more challenging. Hitler was a sociopath, but the Holocaust had millions of active participants and passive observers."

The authors continue a bit later: "...human beings are condemned to live in two ethical and behavioural worlds at once -- the morality of empathy for and reciprocity with ingroups, and the cold-hearted team aggression aimed at outgroups."

Of course, the cruel logic of team aggression applies almost exclusively to young men. And that's where the issues of population size and structure come in. Rapid population growth means a youthful demographic curve, and a larger proportion of young men means a greater natural propensity toward a violent and unstable society. Look around the world at states that manage to get their population growth under control, and you almost invariably find more peaceful and secure countries than those that don't.

Though stressing the genetic factors beyond our control, the authors are not deterministic or depressingly fatalistic about our future as a species. They are completely clear that, in an ever more vulnerably interconnected world with weapons of mass destruction, our "Stone Age" behaviours and potential for extreme violence have become hugely maladaptive. But we can manage to avoid disasters if we approach issues of conflict bearing our evolutionary psychology firmly in mind. Civilisation can, and quite often does, trump biology.

One hopeful tool is simply diplomacy, which has no parallel among chimpanzees. Working to keep arms out of the hands of potential enemies is also an obvious and frequently achievable goal. Reducing the level of conflict -- if not actually eliminating it as we have nearly done with slavery, another long-lived behaviour backed up by a number of our genetic predispositions -- will require some additional steps.

A key method for conflict reduction is empowering women. For one, women are generally less predisposed to violence, meaning that their social, economic and political equality should on average lead to less violent societies. The second point on empowering women is much more specific: provide easy access to birth control and reproductive health. When women can control the number of children they have, they invariably choose to do so, which constricts the demographic pyramid away from a bottom bulge of angry young men and towards a more stable and less violent society.

Another important idea is to keep expanding the concept of our in-group to include all of humanity. Aid and development workers like Potts have been doing this for years, but it goes beyond individuals, of course. The whole concept of universal human rights expands the in-group to everyone, for example. True, it too often remains just a concept, and enemies are all too easily dehumanised into an out-group with ease. But there are other evolved primate characteristics, such as a sense of fairness and a capacity for empathy, that mean we are not facing our darker natures completely unarmed genetically.

Despite its 400 pages and its extensive references to source material ranging from history to philosophy to psychology to genetics, Sex and War is only the start of a more complete view of human conflict, its prevention and its resolution. The field has strong promise: "The standard social science model looks for the causes of war; the evolutionary model seeks ways to make peace break out, while always expecting the worst."

I'm sure that part of the reason I find it so compelling is that, personally, it helps me tie together my biology degree, which had a focus on evolutionary theory, with my degree in politics/social science and my years of covering violent conflict around the world as a journalist and NGO-type. I suppose this book makes many points other people will want to argue with, but at its core, it holds up an uncomfortable mirror to our species that we would be ill-advised to put down.


Review by Andrew Stroehlein, Communications Director for the International Crisis Group, the conflict resolution organisation. This was first posted on Alertnet. You can follow Andrew on Twitter here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Scenes of Suffering in Sri Lanka

A serious media report has surfaced from the UK's Channel 4 on the horrendous situation faced by Tamil civilians incarcerated in make-shift camps in Sri Lanka. Scenes of malnutrition and illness in dire conditions.

The footage, which includes images of naked, dead Tamil men curled up on muddy ground after being allegedly executed, is hotly contested by Sri Lankan authorities and steadfastly substantiated by War without Witness, the outfit credited with gathering the footage on mobile phones. The images were reportedly shot two weeks ago in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka, where some 200'000 uprooted Tamils are interned.

In other developments a senior UN official, James Elder, has been tossed out of Sri Lanka after irking the Sri Lankan authorities with his pointed public criticism. Meanwhile, at UN HQ, in what was claimed to be a statement 'slamming' the Sri Lankan authorities over the expulsion, we were treated to this piece of verbiage: "The Secretary-General strongly regrets the decision of the Sri Lankan government to expel James Elder".
This is an issue worth following in our opinion given: the interesting mix of new technologies being used to counter the official truths of a government at war; rare outspokeness and banishment of a UN diplomat; a leading, independent, foreign broadcaster leading the fray to get to the truth about the apparent suffering that continues in Sri Lanka despite the narrative that would have us believe that the war is over and peace has broken out. A real-time tale on the adage: the first casualty of war is truth.


Friday, September 4, 2009

H1N1 - your best defence is you

HDEO has posted regularly on the threat of H1N1 aka Swine flu (here, here, here and here). Today, the IFRC released a set of communication tools to support a global health intervention aimed at going the last mile. There are radio spots, posters, video clips, e-learning guides for health workers and interested members of the public, widgits and much more.

Posted above is a 30 second video mainly intended for roll out in national markets, rebranded with local Red Cross/Crescent logos and dubbed into local languages. It will also be carried by major international media.

Vaccines are not the only solution to limiting the spread of the virus. Simple measures at the individual level are one of the most effective (and cost-free) measures that can be taken. In any case vaccines will not cover each and every global citizen. If we take practical, logistical and production factors into account vaccines for everyone is anyway an impossibility - this is a fact. Never mind economical factors which basically dictate "if you can pay you're OK".

This campaign aims to stress the humanitarian imperative of getting the right information to everyone. H1N1 is a time for a concerted effort of global solidarity. It is about getting the information into the hands of those who need it most. Everyone has the right to access life-saving information and vaccines. Leave no one behind. And remember, the best defence is you!

The photo shows a technician working on a production line of inactivated H1N1 flu vaccine in Beijing. REUTERS/Jason Lee


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Indonesia Quake: on the spot account

Bob McKerrow, a great friend of HDEO, blogs from Indonesia on his experiences during yesterdays earthquakes.
This afternoon I was drving between offices in Jakarta when I saw hundreds of people running out of a high rise building onto the street. A few seconds later I got a text message saying a large earthquake had struck near Bandung. Shortly after I got confirmation from the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) that it had caused some damage in and around Bandung. 

At the meeting with Danish, French, Honk Kong and Spanish Red Cross we pieced information together from computer maps and messages we received from the field. A tsunami warning was issued but fortunately the wave generated was quite small and caused little damage.

Later I received a more detailed report from the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI)

Following 7.4 SR main shock after shock hit 3 times in Tasikmalaya and surrounding area, the tremor of main shock felt across Java island from Banten and even reach Bali. It was reported that 12 districts affected by the earthquake, namely: Bogor district, Cianjur, Sukabumi, Municipality of Sukabumi, west Bandung, Bandung, Garut, Banjar, Ciamis, Tasikmalaya, Municipality of Tasikmalaya and Purwakarta, also in central Java tremor also gave impact in Cilacap District

Most of the area that is severely damaged is the coastal area in southern part of Indonesia. Communication line still disturb in Tasikmalaya in Banjar reported electricity cut off due to effect of the earthquake, 5.000 idps in Sindang Barang Cianjur. In Bandung 13 Village in pangalengan subdistict reported severely affected affected, 30 idps in Cimaung Bandung. For time being reported that 22 people died (Ciamis 2 people: Cianjur 12 people: Bandung 6 people; Garut 3 People) and 29 people injured, also reported that 810 houses damaged and 16 public facility building collapsed. Immediate need for survivors are tarpaulins and tents. 
I arrived home six hours after the quake and Naila, my wife, was still somewhat shaken by the quake. "First I heard a loud noise then the vbuilding started swaying, the light swung violently and I heard people screaming and talking loudly, she said. She then told me how she joined a huge throng of people rusing down the stairway in this 30 floor building, and of people tripping, fainting, children and Mothers screaming. Old people struggled to get down the stairs and she said it was like a scene from a horror movie.
Then she showed me all the cracks in the appartment that were caused by the quake. A huge crack ran diagonally across the wall in the boys bedroom where they were sleeping peacefully. The kitchen hallway and lounge walls all bore cracks as well.Before i went to bed I got a detailed report from the Indonesian Red Cross and was delighted to read of their efforts in rescue, tending to the injured and providing food and shleter to the homeless. Wayne, our Disaster Coordinator has released large numbers of relief items from our warehouse in support of PMI efforts.Also see an updated account from the IFRC's news pages.