North Afghanistan (Earthquakes)

– in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 11th February 1998.

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Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad Shadow Secretary of State 3:34 pm, 11th February 1998

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what actions her Department is taking to alleviate the suffering of the victims of the earthquakes in northern Afghanistan and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

An earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale hit northern Afghanistan at 19.37 local time—14.37 GMT—on Wednesday 4 February. We first learned of the disaster on 6 February. The most affected area is the Rustaq district in Takhar province which is located about 50 km from the border with Tajikistan. The nearest airport is at the town of Taloqan, 50 km south-west of Rustaq. A number of strong aftershocks have been reported by the local authorities and another earthquake, measuring 5 on the Richter scale was felt in the region around 3 am yesterday.

According to the local authorities in Rustaq, 26 villages are affected, of which six have been completely destroyed. The local authorities indicate that 3,680 people have died; the aid agencies' preliminary estimates put the figure at between 2,000 to 3,000. About 1,000 families are affected. The number of injured is reportedly 417, but that is likely to be an underestimate. I have placed in the Library of the House a copy of the latest situation report from the United Nations Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

On 9 February, we contributed $300,000, or about £180,000, immediately on the launch of a United Nations appeal for assistance. We were among the first in the world to respond. Our funds are being used by the United Nations to conduct urgent assessments and provide immediate relief for the victims. MERLIN, a UK health emergency non-governmental organisation, has already reached the affected area and is providing medical supplies on behalf of the United Nations relief effort.

Since the start of the emergency, we have been in close contact with our Afghanistan field manager based at the British high commission in Islamabad. She has kept in close contact with the relief agencies attempting to gain access to the affected region.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office—ECHO—to which we contribute, is ready to make a contribution of around £1.33 million for shelter, medical items and water supply through the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières—MSF. ECHO has currently one delegate in Kabul and one correspondent in Taloqan to assist in the operation. Oxfam has also offered relief items to the International Committee of the Red Cross and MSF, including tents, blankets, winter clothing and water equipment. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stockpiles of blankets, plastic sheeting and tents in Peshawar, Konduz and Termez ready for distribution. The World Food Programme has three trucks loaded with 20 tonnes of food, plastic sheeting and stoves which were due to reach Rustaq yesterday.

As the right hon. Gentleman will see, we are doing all we can, with the United Nations, to help to provide aid quickly and effectively. However, the remoteness, difficult terrain and poor weather conditions are making aid deliveries extremely difficult. We await further assessments, including those of the United Nations disaster assessment and co-ordination team, other agencies on the ground and the International Committee of the Red Cross before considering what further assistance we might usefully provide.

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad Shadow Secretary of State

I thank the Secretary of State for her full reply. As she knows, every effort made by the Government to bring help to the victims of that terrible disaster will have the support of the whole House. May we offer our gratitude to the aid workers who are struggling to deliver help in such terrible conditions, by delivering tents, blankets and medical supplies, by seeking to deal with the shortage of clean water and the consequent disease and dehydration, and by seeking to evacuate the survivors?

Can the Secretary of State tell the House what consultations she has had with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the largest aid body in Afghanistan, about its assessment of the situation and the delivery of aid? What requests has she received from the ICRC to provide logistical support and what steps has she in mind to respond to them? She knows the problems of providing aid to areas affected by the civil war. How will her Department ensure that the warring factions in Afghanistan do not succeed in manipulating our international aid effort to their benefit?

What steps does the right hon. Lady feel are necessary to safeguard the security of aid workers, particularly British ones? Can she confirm that the Taliban, which exercises control over most of the country, announced a three-day ceasefire at the weekend because of the emergency? Will she and the Foreign Secretary use their good offices to seek to extend the ceasefire—indefinitely, if possible? Finally, can she confirm that British aid, the private aid that will be offered by the public, will go to those it is intended to reach? Can she confirm that there will be not only disaster relief but long-term relief and rehabilitation for a considerable period to come?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. He is right to say that the House is united in feeling that our country should contribute to the relief of such emergencies and in taking pride in the speed with which our agencies respond. That is shared across the House. Both parties have contributed to creating that commitment.

I have not personally been in contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross, but my officials have. We have efficient procedures to move quickly as soon as we get notice of disasters. I am not personally conscious of an ICRC request for logistical support, but we work very closely with it. Some of the contributions that have been made are being delivered through it. We will remain in constant contact.

On the effect of the civil war, the earthquake occurred in the northern part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance, not in the large part of the country controlled by the Taliban. As yet, the civil war has had no effect on getting emergency relief to earthquake survivors.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the Taliban have declared a ceasefire. I am not sure that that has had an immediate effect, as I understand that there was not any fighting in that very remote area of difficult terrain. I agree that we must ensure that we get relief to the affected people and try to ensure that there is no fighting or attempt by either side to take advantage.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the safety and security of aid workers, which is always a major concern. At the moment, the problem is getting them in. There is real difficulty with the weather, the terrain and getting the available resources to assist people in the way we should like. At present, aid workers are not in danger, but are frustrated that they cannot get there to do as much as they would like.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we would provide aid in a way that would not only deal with the disaster but assist reconstruction. He is right to focus on that. The whole international system is reviewing the way in which we provide emergency and humanitarian aid to ensure that it does not paralyse into dependency communities that have been through trauma. If people become refugees, children are not educated, agriculture is not restored, and reconstruction can be prevented. We are all reviewing our procedures to try to ensure that we deliver emergency relief efficiently, but also start to consider how reconstruction can proceed immediately so that the emergency relief does not cause harm in future.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Have we offered co-operation to the Government of Iran, who, with the Red Crescent, have considerable experience in the most difficult conditions?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

We are not directly co-ordinating our efforts. We are making a contribution through the UN system, which is organised to achieve co-ordination. That is the body which is bringing together all the resources. I understand that Iran and Britain were the two countries that moved first and sent assistance most quickly in response to the UN appeal.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Has the Minister received any requests for helicopters or thermal-imaging equipment? Has her Department learned the lesson, highlighted by the Select Committee report on Montserrat, that if it wants to get on with the job that it does well, it should not allow any interference from another Department?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I am not aware of any request for helicopters and thermal-imaging equipment. An emergency organisation that provides such help got as far as Pakistan. We advised it to wait because it does not help in emergencies if everyone piles into aeroplanes and turns up. No matter how well-intentioned, such action creates chaos. That organisation has now withdrawn.

As for my Department's response to emergencies, it is true that the capacity of the British Government to respond rapidly sits within my Department. It works very smoothly and very fast. When there is a need to move, Ministers are not consulted. We have delegated powers and resources available to us, and we move immediately. We can move over a weekend. There is no need to consult lots of Departments and delay our response.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

It seems from my right hon. Friend's statement that it took two days for us to discover that the earthquake had occurred. Can she explain what the difficulty was?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I cannot explain to my hon. Friend what the difficulty was. The international system has become more efficient at responding quickly to such disasters. The earthquake was in an extremely remote place. That is the major part of the difficulty, although, of course, there are others in Afghanistan in terms of communications, governance and so on. My hon. Friend's question would have to be addressed to the United Nations system. I do not know the answer at this moment, but I will find out and write to him.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

During the Secretary of State's successful visit to Bosnia, she will have seen some of the extraordinary work done by the Royal Engineers. Has she consulted the Minister for the Armed Forces about whether it is possible to second one or two British sappers to help the aid programme? They are particularly skilled at getting the most basic emergency services organised.

Although the Secretary of State is running her programme through the United Nations, will she assure the House that, during the current British presidency of the European Union, she is co-ordinating fully with other European Governments in respect of our efforts to relieve the suffering in this appalling tragedy?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

We discussed the contribution of the British forces this morning in the Defence Select Committee. The lesson that we and the Ministry of Defence have learnt is that, when forces are already in theatre, and if they are not engaged in preventing military conflict, they can do useful work to assist reconstruction and rehabilitation. Collaboration with the armed forces happens in certain circumstances when they are already in theatre and it is appropriate. General Pringle emphasised to me that the first priority of the armed forces was to prevent an outbreak of violence, and that, when they are successful in that, they have more time and are able to contribute to reconstruction.

We do collaborate, but it is a question of working together where it is most appropriate. I am not sure whether, in the emergency in Afghanistan, anyone has suggested bringing in the Royal Engineers. At the moment, it is thought that collaboration through the UN is the most helpful way of getting resources in quickly.

We take seriously our responsibilities in our presidency of the European Union. We have been in touch with ECHO for that reason. That is why I gave considerable details of the European Union's promised contribution to the relief effort in Afghanistan.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

How far is the disaster zone from the Taliban front line? What contingency plans are being developed with our armed forces, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to ensure that aid will get through if fighting starts in places where it compromises the supply routes into the area?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

I do not know how far it is in miles, but my understanding is that fighting is not the issue in that area. It is so remote that the fighting was not near the area. The problems are weather, terrain and distance. We need to watch the issue. If there is any problem, we shall have to resolve it, but at present all the international energy is focused on trying to get resources into the area. We have weather and geography against us rather than civil war.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

My right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, (Sir A. Goodlad) said that it would be good if, out of this crisis, some longer-term sustained assistance to Afghanistan could be provided. Although I understand that the right hon. Lady's attention, and that of her Department, are concentrated on the immediate crisis, will she give us an assurance that she has got people to think about how they might use the lessons to be learned from this disaster, perhaps to encourage the Taliban and its opponents to proceed in a more rational way to create within Afghanistan the conditions for the beginning of sustained development?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the situation in Afghanistan is completely tragic. The fighting has gone on for such a long time that the country is full of land mines so that people cannot use their land to grow crops, and they and their children are in constant danger of injury.

I am afraid that there is no immediate prospect of a settlement. The international community has a terrible problem with the Taliban because of its resistance to the provision of equal assistance to women. The International Committee of the Red Cross had to threaten to withdraw all assistance—it is the leading agency helping people who survive injuries from land mines—until the Taliban backed down and said that assistance could be provided equally to women.

I understand that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has not had much success in dealing with the two factions and is now talking to the surrounding countries that have tended to line up behind the respective factions, as so often happens, which has extended the conflict.

The attitude of the Taliban to the provision of basic rights to women is a major problem to the international community. We all stand on the principle that there must be equal rights of assistance in the provision of our humanitarian aid. When we stand together, we appear to succeed. The UN special representative is trying to encourage talks that might lead to peace, but I am afraid that progress is not imminent.