Delegates at the plenary of the twentieth session of UN-HABITAT Governing Council listened in grim silence on Tuesday as representatives of three countries suffering the consequences of war, and the tsunami killer wave gave accounts of how they are trying to bring relief to their citizens and secure international aid.
Sri Lanka said its ministerial delegation had been unable to accept an invitation to the Nairobi meeting, held every two years to set UN-HABITAT’s work programme, because the officials had been compelled to remain at home to attend to reconstruction and rehabilitation following widespread devastation caused by a giant tsunami wave that hit 13 Indian Ocean countries on 26 December last year. Some 112,000 homes in Sri Lanka were wiped out, and more than 40,000 people killed.
Somalia told the conference how after more than 15 years of conflict, 85 percent of its population was currently living in slums or partially destroyed homes, and that, added to this situation of misery, was the plight of some 500,000 Ethiopian refugees, as well as tens of thousands of displaced people.
Liberia, recovering from 14 years of civil war, said it was struggling to recover. It hoped an international donor conference to be held in May or June would help the country redress its rehabilitation crisis. UN-HABITAT is helping rehabilitate ex-combatants in Liberia, providing building and construction skills, and helping reintegrate by providing them with training in construction and other skills.
In a message read by the Acting Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka, Mr. W.M.S. Bandara, on behalf of his government, the delegates listened in silence to a first-hand account of the scale of the tsunami tragedy: “I speak to you with a lot of pain in my heart. We still have not been able to recover and bring the lives of those affected back to normal. At this point of time we need the assistance of the United Nations and its member states for the resettlement of those displaced by providing them with permanent shelter, conservation of the environment and the coast of the areas affected.”
He said the effects have had far reaching economic, environmental, social and psychological consequences, which a poor country like Sri Lanka could not absorb. “The livelihood of the poor in disaster-stricken areas is totally destroyed. Major infrastructure such as roads, railway lines, electric power and telecommunications have been damaged or destroyed bringing most vital services and economic development activities in the areas affected to a standstill.
“The security of women and children is also threatened. Hospitals, schools and other buildings were damaged,” he said citing a “tremendous need” for the formulation of disaster management strategies. “This a time Sri Lanka needs the assistance, support and advice of the United Nations and its member countries to help re-build the devastated nation, and continue our efforts beyond relief and to assist us in our pro-development activities. This covers the development of infrastructure, housing, the environment, fisheries, and the rehabilitation of devastated industries.”
UN-HABITAT’s Disaster Management Programme has undertaken a variety of rehabilitation activities for half a million people in Sri Lanka since the outset of the disaster.
In Somalia, where the agency is also engaged in post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction, Mr. Qasim Hersi Farah, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of the Environment and Disaster Management, people who are normally nomadic pastoralists, are nowadays flocking to the country’s urban centres.
Addressing the plenary, Mr. Farah said: “It is now estimated that no fewer than 60 percent of the Somali population are living in urban areas with without adequate shelter. This statistical proportion shows that the situation has changed from what it once was – a country in which 75 percent of people were nomadic before the 1980s.”
The Somali government, he said, wanted to bring this situation to the attention of the international community, and to notify its urban centres do not have enough accommodation and that structures were going up without a city planning system in the capital, Mogadishu. A similar situation prevailed in many other towns and villages around the country where roads, market places and gardens were materialising without planning.
He appealed to the international community to help the country gather data on the situation as part of a new post-conflict survey.
“Because of the frequent movements and internal displacements due to the civil war, certain areas of Somali cities are extremely overpopulated, while other areas are not populated at all, and have become ghost neighbourhoods. This has led to heavy garbage disposal everywhere, shortages of shelter, water, and the growing spread of communicable diseases,” Mr. Farah said.
As the Somali, Sri Lankan and Liberian delegates addressed the plenary session of the Governing Council, government ministers and senior officials were deliberating on post-conflict and natural and human-made disaster assessment and reconstruction – a special theme of the weeklong conference – in the conference hall next door.
The theme was chosen because such crises, according to the main conference document prepared by UN-HABITAT, “turn back the development clock”. It said 90 percent of the victims, are civilians, especially women and children, in a world already having to protect and assist an estimated 20 million refugees, and some 25 million people displaced within their own borders.
The UN’s inter-agency secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), announced its support for UN-HABITAT’s humanitarian and longer-term post-disaster and post-conflict work.
In her keynote address to the meeting, Ms. Nicole Rencoret of UNISDR welcomed the agency’s decision to put disaster risk reduction high on its agenda as a special theme of the conference. She asked the Governing Council and UN-HABITAT to take a more active role in the Hyogo Framework for Action in urban risk assessment and recovery; increase its capacity for UN country teams; and finally, to continue cooperation with the ISDR secretariat at the global and regional levels in support of disaster risk programmes around the world.