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Aid To World's Poorest Threatened by Weather Extremes

Extreme weather threatens to trigger aid crisis
The Observer (U.K.) August 15, 2004

The world's biggest international aid agency has warned that tens of millions of the world's poorest people are threatened by an unprecedented wave of freak and extreme weather, and that aid workers may be unable to cope with the global humanitarian crisis that might result.

Clouds of locusts, cyclones, massive floods and devastating droughts are wreaking havoc in many of the world's poorest countries, and agencies don't have the resources to cope, said John Powell, deputy executive director of the World Food Programme.

Powell said that although agencies are racing to be ready when the disasters strike, there is a serious risk that the world's richest people may be too wrapped up in their immediate problems - from obesity to the threat of terrorism - to provide sufficient aid. He also criticised the post-11 September obsession with security.

'Right now, in West Africa, the biggest swarm of locusts the region has seen for more than a decade is devouring crops and threatening to put at least a million people at risk. Countries as far away from each other as Kenya, Cuba and Afghanistan are currently in the grip of serious droughts. Freak weather conditions have brought flooding to Nicaragua. In Peru, mountain villagers have lost livestock and crops after the worst recorded frost and snow storms in almost three decades,' Powell told The Observer in Rome, where the WFP has its headquarters.

'Addressing the needs of these millions of people is difficult at the best of times, but in 2004, a cruel convergence of economic factors could pose as much of a threat to their livelihoods as civil wars, natural disasters or the spread of disease,' Powell said.

Security concerns, oil prices, the falling dollar and increased food and freight costs have made humanitarian assistance more expensive than ever, Powell said. At the same time, long-term economic and climatic changes mean that the world's poorest are more vulnerable than they were just 20 years ago.

The WFP's campaign, to be launched next week, aims to alert world attention to the sheer number of people at risk.

'The shocking thing about hunger is that we seem to have grown almost immune to its devastating toll,' Powell said. 'Before we congratulate ourselves on our generosity towards the more than two million who have been forced from their homes by conflict in western Sudan, we should remind ourselves that they represent just a tiny fraction of the world's undernourished.'

In a controversial sideswipe at the invasion of Iraq, likely to anger many major WFP donors, Powell criticised the amount 'that has been said about the clear and present danger from weapons of mass destruction.

'At the WFP we are confronted by a real weapon of mass destruction and it is a weapon that is killing people every day,' he said. 'That weapon is apathy towards the problem of hunger.'

The WFP's campaign is backed by a range of other agencies.

Leading western-run aid agencies have also told The Observer that 'war on terrorism' has made it almost impossible for agencies to remain neutral and 'get on with their job'.

Oxfam is so uncomfortable that it has decided to stop accepting funds from the British government, formerly one of its biggest donors. Médecins Sans Frontières, rather than compromise its neutrality, has pulled out of Afghanistan.