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El Salvador: British Assistance
15 January 2001
Volume 620

4.11 p.m.

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat the Answer given this afternoon by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development to a Private Notice Question in another place.

"At 17.33 hours GMT on Saturday, 13th January, a major earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast of El Salvador. The epicentre was offshore, about 105km south-south-east of the capital, San Salvador. It was also felt in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and as far afield as Mexico City.

"The Government of El Salvador report more than 400 people killed, some 800 injured and more than 1,300 still missing, many of them in an area of San Salvador that has experienced a major landslide. I am sure the whole House would wish to join with me in expressing our sympathy to the people of El Salvador. The airport was damaged and, although some relief flights are being allowed to use it, it is closed to civilian traffic.

"Since the main earthquake, there have been a number of aftershocks, some of which have been of significant strength. The president has declared a national emergency and appealed for international assistance.

"The Department for International Development emergency response centre has been operating round the clock since the earthquake struck and is in regular contact with British Embassy officials in El Salvador and operational agencies on the ground in order to obtain further information and to provide advice on regional procurement of urgently needed supplies.

"We have been in close contact with the Ministry of Defence but, regrettably, the West Indies guard-ship is not in the area. We responded immediately to a preliminary appeal from the United Nations and the Red Cross. We have given financial support to the UN disaster assessment and co-ordination team, which includes a British member, Mr Joe Bishop, and we have given a commitment to fund Oxfam's emergency water and sanitation programme and the Pan American Health Organisation—PAHO—programme of emergency medical assistance.

"Since Hurricane Mitch hit the region in October 1998, we have been providing support to the Centre for the Co-ordination of Natural Disaster Preparedness in Central America for a disaster preparedness programme in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and plan to support a similar disaster preparedness programme with PAHO focusing on reducing vulnerability in the health sector.

"Once again, the UK has responded quickly and effectively to help people struck by a natural disaster. Our commitment to date is now more than £600,000, and we will respond sympathetically to further requests."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

4.15 p.m.

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, for repeating the Statement made in the other place. It is sad to start the new year with such a horrific disaster. We on these Benches deeply regret yet another tragedy and commend the Government for their response so far and for the £600,000. But why for the second time have we been found lacking?

On the mention of the close contact with the Ministry of Defence, it is sad that the West Indies guard-ship is not in the area. Has any other equipment been made available? We remember the images last year of the tragedy in Mozambique, the Government's response to that disaster and the squabbling between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence over the use of much-needed helicopters and the need for the Prime Minister to intervene so that a ship was diverted from the Gulf. Has an assessment been made of the possible use of the West Indies guard-ship, or is it unable even to come to the area, despite the preparedness programme that the Government are supporting?

The situation in San Salvador illustrates the dire need for a plan for a coherent and immediate response to disasters. In the light of this tragedy, I quote the Government's position stated in their last Command Paper in 1997, page 41, paragraph 2.30:
"We will continue to be swift and effective in our response to emergencies and disasters, seeking not only to save lives but to rebuild livelihoods. This is described at Panel 17".
On which page and paragraph in the latest White Paper can we find even a reference to disaster relief? As I have already said, that is not obviously apparent. Is the Minister aware of the comments of one survivor, who said:
"Nobody has food or water. Children do not have milk … We need help please"?
The United Nations and the World Food Programme have donated food and emergency aid, but is the Minister confident that it will reach the area in good time? Will she tell the House what progress the Government have made in delivering food to the region?

Will the Minister also tell us about the European Community Humanitarian Office? Have the Government been in contact with ECHO; and will she give the House an assurance that after the emergency phase is over EU aid will not take two-and-a-half years to reach the region, as it did in the wake of Hurricane Mitch?

Finally, what plans do the Government have to make resources available to deal with the immediate aftermath of the disaster and, even more importantly, with the reconstruction phase, as so many other countries are doing?

4.18 p.m.

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My Lords, I, too, would like to echo the sentiments expressed by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and extend our sympathy to those caught up in the disaster.

Earthquakes cannot be prevented as yet, and the country will suffer the immediate effects and the staggering costs of the blow to its infrastructure, which will affect its economic competence for some years hence. Rather than put questions to the Minister, I welcome the immediate and positive assistance that is being given. I believe that the £100,000 that was at first promised has now been raised to £600,000. Much work is taking place through local non-governmental organisations. Will the Minister assure us that, as in other places, the use of local NGOs on the ground and local procurement are the most effective means to provide financial assistance and are better than sending help from this country? Will any of the specialised teams that operate in this country consider going across?

The disasters raise various issues, including whether or not the Government should reconsider establishing a permanent UN rapid reaction force that could be sent to an area in time of need. The amounts that the Government are looking to give, although generous, will not go a great way to easing what is a terrible disaster. Obviously this earthquake is not as bad as the one that occurred 10 years ago. But it will take many years for the country to mitigate the effects. I hope that the Government will consider calling for a suspension in interest payments on debt relief until the country has dealt with and spent resources desperately needed in the disaster areas.

4.20 p.m.

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My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that this was a terrible disaster and not the way we would want to start a new year. I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their positive comments in regard to the speed of our response and the work of the DfID staff who have been working round the clock since hearing of the disaster.

In relation to specific questions, I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that government departments are working extremely closely on this matter. We have been in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. I said in the Statement that it was unfortunate that the West Indies guard-ship was not in the area. Unfortunately, the ship is not close enough to be of assistance right now. But we are sure that the help we are able to give through organisations like PAHO, the Red Cross, Oxfam. and the focus of all our emergency efforts on sourcing locally and regionally, means that the impact of what we are trying to do is swift and immediate.

With respect to the point made by the noble Baroness in relation to disaster preparedness and response to it, in answer to a Starred Question earlier today I undertook to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, drawing her attention to where both those matters are mentioned in both White Papers.

ECHO has promised 2 million euros. The noble Baroness will be aware that we have been working hard with the European Commission, advising it on ways of improving the effectiveness of its humanitarian effort. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the UK led the way in that regard. Indeed, we see ECHO's response to the disaster as a way of testing the new Europe Aid which was launched on 1st January.

With respect to the question on the reconstruction phase, at the moment we are focusing on the immediate need. It is too early to tell what we will do in terms of the reconstruction phase. We need to wait for the El Salvador Government to come forward with some ideas of what they would like to see. We have committed £600,000 to date in terms of the immediate humanitarian need. We have said that we will look at other needs sympathetically. Of course, we will also look sympathetically at what we will need to do in the long term. However, I am unable to tell the noble Baroness at this moment what that will be.

I have already answered in relation to working through local NGOs and procurement. On the matter of reconsidering a permanent rapid reaction force, we looked at that and agree in principle. However, we recognise that it is important that the agencies on the ground are properly resourced to respond immediately. We learnt from our work in humanitarian action over the years that immediate response is the most effective. While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that we need to look more closely at how the UN system might work and be co-ordinated in practice, support to local NGOs, working and co-ordinating what donor governments are doing and ensuring that our own rapid reaction force is up to speed are things we need to continue to do.

With respect to suspending interest payments, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will be aware that we have worked tirelessly in respect of the whole Pacific initiative. The World Bank has been looking at 'areas of conflict across the world and whether or not there should be some additional ways of thinking about debt relief payments. I am sure that it will continue to do that and will also look at disaster areas and whether or not they need special assistance.

4.25 p.m.

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My Lords, I too welcome the Government's speedy action and financial assistance in response to humanitarian need, following this sad and terrible disaster in Central America. Just over half a million pounds—£600,000£sounds like a lot of money in a personal context, but it is a drop in the ocean in terms of the real need. So I welcome what the noble Baroness said about the Government reviewing the position and, if necessary, producing further aid.

Do the Government efforts vis-à-vis El Salvador extend to neighbouring countries which also suffered damage, such as Nicaragua and Honduras?

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My Lords, at the moment we are focusing on El Salvador, partly because of the results of the landslide which meant that the effects were felt mostly in El Salvador. If any other countries or NGOs working in those countries come to us because there has been significant impact and they need assistance there, we will look at that sympathetically. The noble Baroness will be aware that since Hurricane Mitch we have been looking at disaster preparedness in the region so are already present there. Organisations working in those countries know that we are available to support them if that becomes necessary.