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Archive for January 29th, 2012

Legal issues are often invisible in emergencies

Posted by African Press International on January 29, 2012

GLOBAL: Why international disaster law matters

Legal issues are often invisible in emergencies

BANGKOK, – More countries should follow international disaster law to ensure efficient delivery of international aid, say experts.

“Too often, this life-saving assistance is delayed by bureaucratic bottlenecks,” Elyse Mosquini, a Geneva-based senior advocacy officer of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IRIN.

International disaster law, the legal instruments that provide guidance on how disaster assistance should work, “is the closest thing we have to a rule book on how disaster response operations should be managed across borders”, says Oliver Lacey-Hall, Asia head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA)

The IFRC’s International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) programme developed the Guidelines for the Domestic Facilitation and Regulation of International Disaster Relief and Initial Recovery Assistance, introduced in 2007.

“The guidelines aim to provide guidance to governments on how to reduce red tape and strengthen accountability,” adds Lacey-Hall.

But unfortunately countries do not think about needing external help until it becomes an immediate reality, experts say. Only nine countries have passed IDRL-based domestic legislation – Finland, Indonesia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and US.

Experts say more countries need to act fast and follow their examples.

Lacey-Hall said the recent floods in the Philippines showed that strong disaster laws meant response operations proceeded smoothly.

“Sadly it seems that usually it requires a disaster to focus minds on putting such regulations into place,” he told IRIN.

Mosquini urged states to move before the next disaster strikes.

“One only has to look at the increasing number and scale of natural disasters over the past several years to recognize the urgency of action in this area,” she warns.

Among the stumbling blocks covered are issues such as visas for aid workers, customs and taxes, and an overall need for coordination.

Visas

“There have been a number of cases where visas have taken time to obtain,” says Sarah Ireland, regional director for Oxfam East Asia.

Myanmar notoriously refused to give visas to aid workers for weeks following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“We want to bring in legitimate resources like people and goods quickly, to get these in within the first two weeks,” Ireland said. 


Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Visa facilitation can prove key in getting assistance to those who need it most

Problems with visas can also arise once the immediate disaster response has passed: “It is often easier to get a visa during the first week of an emergency, but weeks into the response operations the procedures are not only back to basics, but the system is often clogged up by the many requests from international organizations,” notes Jesper Lund, humanitarian affairs officer at the Emergency Services Branch of UN-OCHA, based in Geneva.

The IDRL recommendations include granting or waiving visas and work permits for aid workers; recognizing driver’s licences and qualifications of doctors, engineers; and making an effort to hire local staff as much as possible.

Customs and taxes

“Stories of relief shipments delayed at customs processing points for months after they would have been useful are well known,” Mosquini says.

“There are two issues in customs,” adds Ireland. “One is being allowed to bring in things, and sometimes you have to import things like vehicles and communications equipment, which can be sensitive. And then some of the challenges are with taxation – because sometimes taxes are 100 percent.”

“In Haiti, water trucks were parked for months because of the registration process in the country, which created substantial expenditures in renting local water trucks,” says Isabelle Sechaud, IFRC’s field logistics manager.

The IDRL guidelines propose exempting relief shipments from customs and taxes; permitting re-exportation once they are no longer needed; temporarily recognizing foreign registered vehicles; and reducing barriers to import of communications equipment and medicines.

Lack of coordination

“A large part of the assistance in the first phase of a new emergency is donated with the heart rather than based on sound humanitarian needs assessments,” says Lund.

In 2004, many agencies sent inappropriate or even harmful items, such as expired food and medicines, in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, according to Mosquini.

“There was pretty much a free-for-all at the start of the aid operation,” says Lacey-Hall, referring to the tsunami aftermath in Indonesia. “[Lack of coordination] meant there were no clear rules of engagement, that turf battles broke out between aid agencies on who worked where.”

The IDRL guidelines say affected states should have primary responsibility and sovereign rights to regulate relief operations, and the right to decide whether to invite in international assistance. International actors are advised to calculate aid priorities based on need alone, not interfere in internal affairs of the affected state and coordinate with domestic actors.

ms/ds/mw
source www.irinnews.org

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Discovery of unsafe levels of arsenic in Nepal’s groundwater more than a decade ago

Posted by African Press International on January 29, 2012

Analysis: When aid meets arsenic in Nepal

A girl drinks from a public tap installed last year in Nepal’s Nawalparasi District

PARASI,  – After the discovery of unsafe levels of arsenic in Nepal’s groundwater more than a decade ago, government officials and aid groups are finally taking a critical look at whether their efforts have made a difference.

“We didn’t raise money for broken filters,” said US-based geologist Linda Smith, expressing frustration during a recent visit to Nawalparasi District in the southern Terai region, one of Nepal’s hardest-hit areas by arsenic-contaminated groundwater, when she came across abandoned water filters.

At one home, two broken cement water filters were being used as planters, while another filter distributed by the NGO she heads, Filters for Families (FFF), sat dismantled in the yard.

At a neighbouring home, parts were missing from a two-bucket filtration system from Bangladesh known as a Sono. The filter stand had been converted to a clothes-drying rack.

Smith retrieved unused filters and reimbursed families for the US$5 they had paid per filter, which has an actual cost of $70.

“There are people who need filters, and they need to realize this,” she said.

Some 2.7 million people in Nepal – nearly 10 percent of the population – are drinking water with arsenic concentrations above the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended 10 parts per billion (ppb), according to 2011 government estimates.

In Nawalparasi District alone, a 2008 government survey of tube wells (shallow wells 14-24m deep controlled by hand pumps) found almost 4,000 wells had arsenic that exceeded national standards (50ppb).

Another 4,418 met national standards, but not the international 10ppb threshold – altogether affecting nearly 140,000 people who depend on those tube wells for drinking water.

Not a priority?

More than half of the country’s 33,000 tube wells that contain unsafe levels of arsenic have been addressed with the distribution of filters, but it does not mean the filters are used or maintained properly, said Madhav Pahari, water and sanitation specialist for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Kathmandu, which supports the government with arsenic containment.

“We have been providing temporary solutions through filters, but that requires changing behaviour, [which does not] occur overnight.”

A 2007 UNICEF-funded study of 1,000 tube wells in Nawalparasi found that while the filters technically worked, people were not maintaining them properly, which then rendered them faulty and then, ultimately, useless.

Little has been done to address the problem, in part because arsenic is not seen as a high priority for the government, said Pahari.


Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Hands of an arsenicosis patient in southern Bangladesh

“Microbial parasites are more important,” says Pahari. “Because if your kids have diarrhoea today, they’ll die tomorrow. But arsenic, of course, will take 10 years. It’s dangerous, but slow.”

Prolonged exposure to unsafe levels of the metal arsenic in drinking water can lead to poisoning, or arsenicosis.

Symptoms include skin problems, cancers of the skin, bladder, kidneys and lungs; diseases of the blood vessels of the legs and feet; and possibly, diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders – but the cancer can lay dormant without spreading for years, even decades, notes WHO.

According to a senior engineer in the government’s Department of Water Supply and Sewerage (DWSS), Dan Ratna Shakya, arsenic is indeed a priority, but the government has lacked funding and the right technology to figure out what works best.

What works?

Pahari as well as Shakya said UNICEF and the government have both lagged in evaluating the filters, used for the past six years.

DWSS has never conducted a comprehensive water quality testing programme before, said Shakya.

“It’s not a one-time business. It should be periodical. But this is also linked to funding. There are so many… districts that are affected by arsenic and to go to each household for monitoring would be expensive.”

Pahari said there is a plan to compare the efficacy of Sono filters produced in Bangladesh with locally produced Kanchan arsenic filters.

Today, the Sono filter remains one of six technologies certified for sale in Bangladesh – one of the most affected countries worldwide in terms of arsenic-tainted drinking water, according to WHO; the Kanchan one failed local certification.

Until there are scientific tests, Pahari said, he cannot pass judgment on the best way to contain the arsenic crisis, but those tests have languished, as has the government committee in charge of water quality.

Deeper wells

The government’s recently reconfigured National Water Quality Steering Committee has only in recent months started “thinking about” permanent solutions to solve arsenic contamination, said Ram Lakhan Mandal, the head of water quality at DWSS.

“We thought the arsenic problem had been solved because of all these organizations that have implemented temporary mitigation measures like filters.”

The committee, which includes 19 government and civil society members, has been “passive” and has not met in the past three years, said the government engineer Shakya.

But things will change soon pledged Mandal.

“In the past, everyone came for mitigation and they did as they wished. But there was no set distribution of responsibilities. Now we are defining what we must do: tube wells and piped deep boring.”


Photo: Marcus Benigno/IRIN
A 29-year-old man in Nawalparasi District shows his blotched chest, a symptom of arsenic poisoning

The government is investing in a pilot project of “deep boring” wells that go at least 100m deep, below the arsenic threshold, estimated to be at most 55m deep in Nepal, according to Smith.

An entire deep boring (up to 150m) and water tank (25,000 litres capacity) construction can cost $16,000, of which 20 percent is paid by the community, which is also responsible for building the water tank which funnels the water to village public taps.

At one water tank construction site IRIN visited in a section of Nawalparasi known as Kunwar-Ward 13, villagers complained that without cash incentives, volunteers who were supposed to be building the tank were, instead, in their fields harvesting sugar cane.

As permanent solutions still prove elusive, families continue to line up for subsidized filters, said Smith.

“At the moment we have a waiting list of 700 [requests for] Sono filters,” said Smith.

Since 2007, FFF has assembled and delivered up to 1,000 filters to households and schools in villages across the district, replacing Kanchan filters previously installed by FFF and DWSS – an example of how a solution can become part of a greater problem, noted Pahari from UNICEF.

Poor coordination

Pahari said the number of agencies working to fight arsenic is unclear – as well as the total aid invested in arsenic containment – and the government has little oversight.

Mandal told IRIN a law in place for the past 20 years requires that any agency or NGO working in the water sector report its activities to the district office, which then informs DWSS.

“But this is not happening,” he said, while his colleagues cited stumbling on a Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA)-funded project of which they were not aware that is raising awareness about arsenic contamination in Nawalparasi.

“The government is not aware of how this money comes and how it goes. There are no reporting channels… JICA and ENPHO [local NGO, Environment and Public Health Organization] have a mutual understanding, but they don’t pass on the information.”

But a senior programme manager with ENPHO, which is implementing a 28-month $400,000 local capacity building project for arsenic mitigation, said government officials at both the national and local levels had signed off on the project and have been apprised at every step.


Photo: Marcus Benigno/IRIN
An abandoned arsenic water filter stand- turned-planter

“We had informed [the water quality improvement and monitoring section at DWSS] about our project to responsible personnel there. As far as I know, the chief [of the section] has changed a few months back. At DWSS there are many staff, so it is important whom you had contact with.”

Meanwhile, in Manari village in Nawalparasi, Smith and her NGO’s technicians visited the family of Ramesh Chaudhary, who died last November from stomach cancer at age 32, six months after his brother Ram Chaudhary, 40, died from similar causes.

In 2011, arsenic levels in tube-wells in Manari were 600 ppb, 60 times the limit WHO deems safe to drink.

FFF tested the water filter in use in front of surviving family members to quell their doubts as to its efficacy. Ramesh’s mother, widowed wife and son stood by as a technician tested the water.

A slip of paper sensitive to arsenic fumes alters in colour to measure the metal in parts per billion. The result was clean, indicating arsenic at less than 10 ppb.

As the group left the village, a 29-year-old man approached Smith and showed her what has become an image far too familiar in the district: dark spots blotting his chest, a visible symptom of arsenicosis.

In an August 2011 survey by ENPHO in three sections of Nawalparasi, including Manari, 25 percent of those surveyed had similar symptoms.

DWSS estimates solving the arsenic crisis here and elsewhere in the country, including the health fallout, will cost an estimated $18.6 million.

mb/pt/cb
source www.irinnews.org

Posted in AA > News and News analysis | Leave a Comment »

Hunger strike – Australian immigration policy remains a contentious debate

Posted by African Press International on January 29, 2012

MIGRATION: Asylum-seekers in Australia suspend hunger strike

Australian immigration policy remains a contentious debate

BANGKOK,  – About 150 asylum-seekers in Australia have suspended their hunger strike after accusing the government of reneging on a promise for community detention and bridging visas for long-term detainees who posed no risk, activists confirm.

At least 34 of the participants had been on hunger strike for a week.

“The ball is now in the government’s court,” Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC), told IRIN from Sydney. “I hope this will be followed by action and not just words.”

The suspension follows a meeting between an official from Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship and 12 elected hunger strikers from the group on 24 January, with an agreement for both sides to meet again a week later.

More than 3,000 boat people – mostly Sri Lankans, Afghans and Iranians – are now in detention in eight high security immigration detention centres (IDCs) across the country, many for extended periods of time.

According to the government’s own statistics, 38 percent of asylum-seekers had been in detention for over a year.

Policy shift

On 25 November, the government announced a shift in policy that boat arrivals who did not pose risks would be considered for placement in the community on bridging visas, following initial health, security and identity checks.

Priority would be given to those who had spent the greatest amount of time in detention.

Under the plan, asylum-seekers on bridging visas have the right to work and support themselves while their claims for asylum are processed, as well as have access to necessary health services.

“This will be an ongoing, staged process to ensure an orderly transition to the community and that only suitable people are released,” Chris Bowen, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, said at the time of the announcement, noting he expected at least 100 asylum-seekers to be released per month.

But two months on and only 107 bridging visas issued, detainees and activists have grown frustrated by the slow pace of the process.

More than half the Afghan asylum-seekers, many of them ethnic Hazara, at the Pontville centre, joined the recent hunger strike which ultimately resulted in the hospitalization of at least three.

“There is nothing like 100 visas a month being issued and tensions are growing in all the detention centres,” Rintoul said, describing the government announcement as a “cruel hoax”.

Element of hope

“The process may not be going as fast as we would like, but we acknowledge that it’s a difficult process and one that needs to be done properly,” Alex Pagliaro, a refugee campaign coordinator for Amnesty International, told IRIN, describing the government’s plans to release more asylum-seekers into the community as “genuine”.

“They need to ensure that all necessary services are available to them when they are released,” she said, adding: “Once the process speeds up, this will take the pressure off the detention centres, which are already overcrowded.”

“Issuing bridging visas for asylum-seekers who arrive by boat is an important first step towards ending the suffering of thousands of vulnerable people experiencing extended and needless detention,” Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia, added.

“We encourage the Federal Government to continue releasing more people into the community while their claims for asylum are being assessed,” he said, citing the importance of having a single system of processing, regardless of whether asylum-seekers arrive by boat or by plane.

According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, there are more than 5,000 asylum-seekers in Australia today, including 3,464 in the IDC system on the mainland, 945 in immigration detention on Christmas Island off the southern coast of Indonesia, as well as 1,324 living in community detention.

Under Australian immigration law enacted in 1992, any asylum-seeker arriving in the country without a visa by boat can be detained indefinitely, while those arriving by plane with a visa can be processed in the community.

ds/mw
source www.irinnews.org

Posted in AA > News and News analysis | Leave a Comment »

 
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