Skip to main content

Cyclone Idai

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response the UK is making to help address the impact of Cyclone Idai in parts of southern Africa.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In so doing, I declare my interest as a member of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, with friends in Zimbabwe.

My Lords, this cyclone disaster is shocking and devastating and our hearts go out to all those impacted by it. Her Majesty’s Government have formally approved the provision of £6 million to DfID to alleviate the situation. We have deployed a team of DfID experts, aid supplies are on the ground, the UK is leading the donor response and we stand ready to scale up our support in any way we can.

My Lords, my interest was first sparked by the fact that the cyclone struck three countries: Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. There was no mention of Zimbabwe, either in the report in the Daily Telegraph or on the BBC’s website. Zimbabwe is not a member of the Commonwealth, but it remains part of the human race and the suffering there is appalling.

I will read a little bit of an email I received this morning from a friend of mine in Chimanimani in Zimbabwe:

“800 mm of rain in one day caused a huge mudslide … at 7.30 at night … swept away our sawmill, workshops, tree nursery with most of this year’s avo and mac trees for planting and all of next years and most terrible of all 37 out of 39 x 8 room workers rooms killing 5 with another 15 odd missing presumed dead and masses injured”.

One washed up six kilometres away. It went on:

“Fields that were full of nut-laden … trees now look like dry river beds just rocks not a spoonful of earth”.

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but this is a Private Notice Question and should be treated as a Question, not as a Statement.

I am sorry. I thought my question was self-evident from the start. What is being done to ensure that this aid is distributed throughout the three countries and not pinned down to two of them through favouritism?

I assure my noble friend that the Government will not be treating countries in an unbalanced way. In Zimbabwe, we have already carried out satellite mapping of affected areas to assess damage and provided hygiene kits, cholera kits, essential medicines, tracing and psychosocial support for children, and water sanitation. Before I came into the Chamber, I had a telephone conversation with two of the DfID aid workers in Mozambique. I did not think I would be able to say that without getting very emotional. Their stoicism and what they are doing are amazing. I assure my noble friend that money will be allocated to Zimbabwe, and we will know how much in the next 24 hours.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s response and the Government’s response to the urgent situation in the countries mentioned. In fact, I met representatives of the IRC this morning, who had already undertaken an immediate response in Zimbabwe, providing medical aid and support. But there is another issue here: the port that supplies these countries is also in Mozambique, so a long-term situation could develop. What sort of response are the Government preparing to deal with that long-term situation to ensure that supplies continue?

I am pleased to be able to tell the noble Lord that the port has not been affected by the cyclone. Our first phase of trying to help in this situation is dealing with the devastation, providing medical supplies and temporary housing, and saving lives. The second phase will be to try to help put the infrastructure back together and get people and their businesses back on their feet. I cannot give any figures, but I will ask the officials whether any exist and whether they can get some to answer the noble Lord’s question.

I too welcome the Government’s immediate response to this crisis. Just over an hour ago, Save the Children reported that, due to the River Buzi in Mozambique bursting its banks, the town of Buzi could be under water in 24 hours. What immediate relief action is in hand to save Buzi’s 2,500 children from the threat of drowning? According to the UN agencies, this is one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere. As chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, are the Government considering initiating Commonwealth-wide relief and reconstruction measures across the region in the longer term?

The two aid workers that I spoke to before I came into the Chamber were very concerned about the river that the noble Lord mentioned. The Met Office has been absolutely splendid in its support for the region by helping with information. Unfortunately, it looks as though, in the next six days, there could be more terrible weather. As for the question about Commonwealth-wide relief programme, I do not know the answer but I will get one for the noble Lord. Let noble Lords be assured that everybody is doing everything they can to avoid letting children and other humans die.

My Lords, when the Government speak about the future of foreign policy after Brexit—one way or the other—does this situation not re-emphasise the indispensability of having a dedicated DfID as an independent department, which is building up its expertise in helping respond to situations such as this and which also understands the context in which aid going into such a situation can be used effectively? So much aid can be misused because there is no understanding of the situation.

The noble Lord raises a very important point. All the DfID officials I have ever spoken to or been involved with in preparation for this Question understand the real needs and what needs to be done. They do an absolutely outstanding job. He is absolutely spot on: a dedicated department is absolutely critical. I know of no intention for that to change. I assure noble Lords, as I have before, that DfID is doing everything it can to alleviate the problems that people are facing.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as laid out in the register. As well as the very welcome efforts being made by DfID, will the Minister confirm that UK agencies are already active in the field—including Christian Aid in Zimbabwe, which I know of—in those countries and doing what they can? Will the Government look very carefully at what assistance and support they can give to those organisations already working in the countries concerned?

I can confirm that aid agencies are on the ground, working in partnership to maximise the impact of their work. There is no doubt about that. I have no reason to suspect that the Government will not support them, but on a very serious subject the noble Baroness would not want me to get into trouble by writing a cheque at the Dispatch Box—that would be foolish. I will, however, make sure that the officials go away and find out exactly who is working where. I shall also try to find out what the number might be.

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend’s response and the rapid commitment given by the UK Government. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the long term. For the long term, DfID will now look very constructively at applications from small charities—much as I admire the big ones such as ICRC—which work on the ground with people they know and have really good insight into what is needed for the long term.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State made a speech at the Bond Conference; she outlined the Small Charities Challenge Fund. Small charities, while they may be small in size, have an amazing sense of innovation and impact. They will all be encouraged to apply to that fund so that they can make all the difference that they can.

My Lords, such is the devastation that reports are only slowly coming in from some of the most damaged areas. We are hearing reports from a number of the Anglican dioceses in different parts of the Communion and from a number of bishops, including Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, who has launched an appeal and is mobilising people on the ground. Will the Minister assure us that DfID will work closely with those networks and organisations on the ground, such as the dioceses and the Christian communities which have the networks in place and know what is going on locally?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I can confirm 100% that DfID is co-ordinating with partners on the wider humanitarian response to make a big difference in this terrible situation. I will be amazed if it is not working with the Church.