HC Deb 28 February 2000 vol 345 cc21-31 3.31 pm
Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement on the Government's response to the situation in Mozambique following the recent cyclone and flooding.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

Over the past two weeks, the worst floods in more than 50 years have hit southern Mozambique. Cyclone Eline also caused substantial damage in the central provinces. Over the weekend, water deposited by Eline in Zimbabwe and South Africa has filtered through to Mozambique, causing further massive flooding of the Limpopo and Save rivers.

The Government of Mozambique estimate that more than 500,000 people have been affected, with more than 100,000 still awaiting rescue following the flood surge over the weekend. The people are becoming frail and they need food and water. The situation is very serious. Regrettably, it might become even worse in the next few days, because of the likelihood of further storms and flooding from the Cahora Bassa dam.

The first phase of the relief operation, involving rescue and evacuation of people stranded by flood water, is still on-going. Co-ordination of rescue activities has been problematic. We are doing all we can to make available extra helicopters and boats. As the flood water subsides, the relief operation will move into a second phase, in which priorities will be urgent repairs to essential infrastructure, shelter, food delivery and medical services.

My Department deployed two humanitarian specialists to the region during the initial stages of the flooding on 11 February. They conducted rapid assessments and liaised with the Mozambique authorities and humanitarian organisations to help to plan the rescue operation. We dispatched a consignment of more than 400 tents from the UK to Maputo for the Red Cross to distribute for emergency shelter to the homeless. We also supported the United Nations disaster assessment and co-ordination team, which is assisting the Mozambique authorities with the targeting and co-ordination of relief efforts. Given the deteriorating situation over the weekend, we are redeploying a humanitarian specialist to Mozambique. We are also strengthening the World Food Programme with the secondment of two logistics experts to assist with the effective tasking of helicopters.

My Department has already contributed some £2.2 million for rescue and immediate relief, including the provision of shelter, water, sanitation and health support. That funding has been channelled through the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNICEF, the World Food Programme, the Red Cross, ActionAid, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund and World Vision. Those activities are being co-ordinated with the Mozambique authorities. We stand ready to provide further assistance.

Dr. Tonge

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. I also welcome her Department's pledge of £2.2 million in aid and $1 million to continue South Africa's military operation for a further 10 days. South Africa's force is stretched and underfunded and that country is itself suffering from the floods, so its efforts are to be commended.

Many thousands, however, are still stranded in the Save river valley, and more helicopters are needed. Although we cannot always predict natural disasters, which sadly seem to be becoming more frequent, does the Secretary of State accept that the NGOs and the military could work together, and that rapid response and needs assessments should be better co-ordinated? For instance, both Britain and the international community as a whole might be better able to respond if a United Nations rapid reaction task force were set up, ready for a disaster when it happened.

Will the Secretary of State comment on reports that Mozambique still has not received its debt relief, because of International Monetary Fund objections?

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The problem is not money. The problem is deploying on the ground, getting the helicopters and boats where they are needed, and getting food and water to people. The hon. Lady is right: the situation will probably get very much worse. There are people who are in bad shape and cannot be rescued because there are not enough helicopters. It is an organisational rather than a financial problem.

We are trying to get better disaster relief preparations across the world. Organisation in-country is needed for the immediate response—it takes time to bring people in from elsewhere, however ready they are.

Mozambique is one of the most desperately poor countries in the world, coming back from a terrible history, with only frail capacity within the country, and a brave, reforming Government. It is extremely difficult for such a country to respond to such a disaster.

On the question of whether more disasters are occurring, our evidence suggests that there are not necessarily more disasters, but they affect more people, because more people are living on unsuitable land and are more dreadfully affected by disasters.

I agree that we must do more to have in place a rapid reaction capability. We have been working to strengthen UNDAC—the United Nations disaster assessment co-ordination team. It is much faster now and moves in quickly to help countries to call for the support that they need.

Mozambique received $1.5 billion in debt relief in July 1999 and will get more in March. It has reserves, and it will need a great deal of money to reconstruct the country, but the problem at present is not money to spend: it is deploying on the ground to save people's lives.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I join the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) in thanking the Secretary of State for coming to the House today to update us on the serious situation in Mozambique. No one can fail to be moved by the pictures that we see on television. Our sympathies go to the victims and their families, and our support to the voluntary workers, especially from Oxfam and Save the Children Fund, and the officials who are trying desperately to save lives.

Will the Secretary of State comment on what her Minister said on the BBC one o'clock news—that by tomorrow, 14 helicopters will be in use rescuing people, and that only six are currently in use? In her assessment, is that sufficient air-lift capability to save all the lives threatened by the rising water? What else can be done to encourage people with helicopters in the area to come to the assistance of victims of the flood? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our Ministry of Defence about any further assistance that could be provided?

I welcome the £2.2 million in cash that has already been committed to the relief effort over the past few days, but in the light of the appeal from Chief Anyaoku today, what further funds can the Department commit? Is there any way in which the Department can help to satisfy the demand for boats, which are obviously desperately needed?

It was disappointing to hear reports last week that the British Government had been criticised by aid workers and the Mozambique authorities for ignoring local disaster relief efforts. What assessment has the right hon. Lady made of those criticisms? Has she had an opportunity to deal with them?

On debt relief, I note from the Minister's comments earlier today that no repayment of debt relief will be expected by the UK from Mozambique this year. Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that no repayment will be expected in the subsequent year? Will she comment on the fact that half the $8.3 billion debt owed by Mozambique is to Russia, Italy and France? Can she give the House an undertaking that she will discuss with those countries the opportunities that they will offer Mozambique for debt relief?

I wonder whether we have learned any lessons. In 1997, a resolution was passed in the European Parliament when 73 people died, 400,000 were made homeless and 70,000 hectares were laid waste in Mozambique because of floods. Will the Secretary of State assure us that she will give priority to good emergency planning? Fine words and funds are all very well, but we need good planning and co-ordination in future. If she can assure us that she will move forward on that basis, the Opposition will support her.

Clare Short

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support for the Department's work. We—and everyone—are currently hunting for helicopters. We can pay for them. Although none were found in Zimbabwe, South Africa is making them available. If we can find them and buy them, we shall send them in. Nine are currently working, but only three have winch capacity, which is needed to pick people up. The situation is therefore desperate.

We are also looking for boats, but the floods are so bad and the tides so difficult that it is dangerous to use them. We have not got the right equipment and we are short of helicopters with winches. As we speak, my officials are hunting around the region for such helicopters. We have talked to the Ministry of Defence—shortly, I might talk to its Ministers a little more—and it has no resources within 3,000 miles—[Interruption.] Well, that was my understanding from advice that I received from the Ministry this morning. The Ministry of Defence therefore has no resources nearby.

The reality in the modern world is that equipment is not on hand for every emergency. As I told the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), there is no shortage of funds to deal with the emergency; the problem is deployment and getting things done. We can make more money available.

I examined the criticism of the British Government which appeared in one newspaper. The Government in Mozambique is a brave, reforming Government with frail capacity. One or two of their officials were a bit irritated with my officials, who have a lot of experience, flew straight in and made many suggestions about what should be done. We have a good relationship with the Government of Mozambique.

As I said earlier, debt relief will be important for reconstruction later. It is not currently an issue. The Government of Mozambique have considerable reserves that they will need to deploy. There are no payments due to the United Kingdom Government. We are not a big creditor of Mozambique's. We are discussing with other Governments ways in which to speed up HIPC 2 and how they can match us on 100 per cent. debt relief. We shall do all that we can.

I do not accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham that we have learned no lessons. It is great that we have reached the point that, when a disaster occurs in one poor country, the public throughout the world call on their Governments to do all they can to help. We are a leading force in the international community's ability to react quickly to emergencies.

We are considering the worst disaster that Mozambique has suffered in 50 years. It is a very poor, frail country, and it is dealing with an unprecedented disaster. The United Nations is helping; we are helping. We shall do all we can, but things will get worse before they get better.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

My right hon. Friend knows that some members of the Select Committee on International Development have recently returned from Mozambique. We met my right hon. Friend's officials, who are doing a good job there. I heard no criticism of the British Government while I was there: quite the contrary. However, I want to raise some points with my right hon. Friend.

Last week, we watched some of the rescue operations and some of the delivery of food, medicines and tents—we saw the first consignment of British tents being lifted off the ground and taken by helicopter to the affected area. People were anxious that there were only two helicopters, and that they had insufficient funds to pay for them for a second week. The helicopters were hired from the South African Government. People claimed that they had insufficient money to continue hiring them. I do not claim that the Department did not provide the money; it has been very generous. However, other countries contribute to the United Nations. Some seem to believe that the United Nations can work without the necessary funds. When Mrs. Ogata visited Britain five years ago, she said, "Give me the money, I can do the job."

People in Mozambique were worried that they could not continue to use two helicopters for a second week. That says something about the shoestring budget on which the United Nations works. When 100,000 people are in danger of losing their lives—some are clinging on to roofs and trees with the flood waters still rising—the world has fallen short of what it ought to do in an emergency of this kind. It has been known for weeks that there was a threat of floods in the area, so there is something wrong if we are scrabbling around for helicopters.

I saw the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs working in Mozambique with the assistance of somebody from the Department for International Development, but the truth is that the aid agencies were very concerned that they were not able to do what they thought was necessary because of a lack of money. It is not right that the world has fallen short of being able to assist people in one of the poorest countries in the world who are in difficulty through no fault of their own. We cannot help them in the way that we should because the United Nations does not have the resources.

Clare Short

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am aware that the Select Committee has been in Mozambique and grateful to it for being careful not to use any resources that are needed to help deal with the disaster. I appreciate that; it behaved very responsibly.

It is always easy to say that there is not enough money. Truly, the problem is not that, but getting people, organisation and efficiency on the ground now, getting helicopters—we do not have enough and we have even fewer with winches—and getting them flying. The disaster is that Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world and history has been very hard on it. It has a good, reforming Government, but capacity in the country is enormously weak.

It is not true that money is the problem for the UN or non-governmental organisations; it is getting the money and the assistance deployed on the ground. I am proud that our Department and my officials in our conflict and humanitarian affairs department are among the best in the world at moving rapidly. Lots of other countries go on television to pledge money, but it takes months to get it to Mozambique. We can provide money for as many helicopters as we can get into the theatre and are searching for them all around. Believe me: the problem is not money but organisation, helicopters, efficiency and getting food to people before many die.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Can the Secretary of State tell the House a bit more about the effect of the hurricane that hit the central provinces of Mozambique? Most of the BBC reporting has been on the flooding to the north and south of Maputo. Can she also say whether provision is being made and plans are being laid to provide the farmers with seeds and tools to replant their crops after the floods recede? That is necessary before the dry season sets in. They need to plant as soon as the floods recede.

Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There was a cyclone and flooding is coming on the whiplash, back in from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Another storm is coming in from the sea and there is a danger of Cahora Bassa flooding. That is a disaster and so hard and unfair for Mozambique, which is being hit from both sides. It looks as though things will get very much worse. I can assure him that we and, I presume, others are preparing for the next phase in terms of seeds and tools. The main road has been damaged and Mozambique has hardly any infrastructure or roads. I have had meetings with my officials. My emergency officials are at work and the officials out in Mozambique are preparing for the next phase now.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

The Secretary of State will be aware that one of the responses of ordinary people up and down Britain to what they have seen on television is a desire to help. Is there anything that they can do? People want to contribute to the solution in some way when they see such horrors.

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right—the British people are notoriously generous. Whenever there is a crisis, they want to contribute and do so in large and ever growing amounts. People can give money to the NGOs that I have mentioned, which are working on the ground—Save the Children Fund, ActionAid, World Vision and so on—and I believe that there is to be an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee. I am sure that the public will want to contribute as generously as they always do.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I too was in Mozambique last week with the Select Committee on International Development. May I say, unusually, that the Government's response was good? I particularly commend the work of the Secretary of State's officials in Mozambique, and of the two people seconded from the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Gilbert Greenall and Ian Howard-Williams, who did excellent work in co-ordinating the humanitarian relief.

The people of Mozambique had very little, and now many of them have much less. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that she will not reduce the aid that she has already given to Mozambique for purposes other than this catastrophe, especially for the work on HIV and AIDS prevention in that country?

Clare Short

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to my officials. This country has a reputation as one of the fastest to respond to disasters, because officials in my Department work day and night and have good response systems. We are all entitled to be proud of them.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not reduce our growing aid programme. Mozambique is a very poor country with a frail administrative capacity and a weak infrastructure. At the moment it has reserves, because it is having to strengthen the capacity of its systems to be able to spend money on the ground to reach people all over that desperately poor country. We have a growing programme, and I can increase it as the money can be spent.

We must review the position once Mozambique is over the disaster so that reconstruction can begin. We have committed resources and we can spend more than Mozambique can absorb at the moment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will continue to be the case.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that a parliamentary delegation from Mozambique came to this country last year under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and visited Burnley. Members of that delegation underlined the points that she has made about the difficult problems that their country is facing after a civil war that lasted many years.

Mozambique is the newest member of the Commonwealth. Are Commonwealth countries responding positively to deal with the immediate crisis and to help to save lives now, to cope with the immediate aftermath of the crisis to which my right hon. Friend referred, and to aid its economy and help to solve the on-going debt problem? The Commonwealth, in addition to this country and South Africa, should respond positively.

Clare Short

Mozambique is a proud member of the Commonwealth, and, I think, the only member that was not colonised by Britain. The Queen visited Mozambique recently and was given an enormously warm reception. The Commonwealth is not a large donor of emergency assistance. The Commonwealth secretariat is good on human rights work, support for Parliaments and other such matters. I am sure that other Commonwealth countries will respond.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the needs are massive, and I am sure that the world will rally to Mozambique. History has been hard on that country, and the Mozambique Government, in their brave efforts to take their country forward and to institute reform, deserve all the support they can get.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I add my good wishes to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff in Maputo? They are a first-rate team who are working in conditions that are difficult and dangerous for them as well as for the people of Mozambique.

Those of us who went to Mozambique at the end of last year to scrutinise the elections came back with mixed feelings of hope and despair: some hope because the elections were, by and large, fair and democracy looked set fair, and some despair that poverty may undermine the democratic process. That was before the floods.

It is clear that the people of Mozambique are facing real threats of dysentery and cholera, and the food crop for this year is likely to be entirely wiped out. One of the biggest problems faced day in, day out are land mines. Those mines will have moved in the floods, and no one will have any idea where they are, so agriculture will be incredibly dangerous. This must be the time for the right hon. Lady to talk immediately to her hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces with a view to getting out there the engineering capacity to cope with this crisis—not just in the next two or three weeks, but in the next two or three months and perhaps the next two or three years.

Clare Short

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Foreign Office staff in the area. Our high commissioner has given an excellent lead, and is dedicated to the provision of support for Mozambique.

Although Mozambique is a very poor country, it is a very impressive country. A vicious civil war, partly fed by apartheid South Africa, has now turned to democracy. People are no longer killing each other, and there is a Parliament with a Government and an Opposition. That is a remarkable achievement for such a desperately poor country, but its democracy will be under strain as a result of this growing disaster. As I have said, we will do all we can to help with reconstruction of the infrastructure, and the provision of food and seeds.

It is true that land mines are a problem, but at the request of the Mozambique Government, the United Kingdom is leading the effort in Zambesia province, which was one of the centres of the fighting during the civil war. I am pleased to say that when I was there, nearly a year ago, the mines had basically been cleared. We have left a small team in the area, because some mines always remain in bushes and so on, as the hon. Gentleman suggests; but I do not think that it is flooded. When a war ends, it is possible to clear land mines.

I will of course consult the Ministry of Defence further about what more we can do, but if our own forces are not nearby, that is not always the best way in which to help. If they are in the region and in the theatre, it is best for them to help immediately, but it is not generally useful to bring them in from far away during a later phase of a disaster.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

My right hon. Friend said that this was more a question of immediate organisation than of finance. Does she agree, however, that there may well be thousands of small boat owners who are relatively poor and whose boats could be put to use, but who will need recompense for their loss? A few weeks down the line, it will be a question of providing more money for that purpose. Is my right hon. Friend confident that international financial resources will be available?

Clare Short

At present, 100,000 people are stranded, and we have nine helicopters with winches. We need boats to convey food and water, and to get people out. The situation is turbulent, and the conditions are currently dangerous for boats. What we need are bigger boats.

Many people have lost everything—their home and all their property. Those are terrible losses, but we must ensure that people do not lose their lives. Of course there will be further losses and the reconstruction effort will be massive. In the face of emergencies such as this, there is always—understandably—a call for money, but we must provide help on the ground now while people are still alive, to prevent them from dying and make them safe. Such organisation is not a resource problem: the UK can find more money and other countries have committed money. That is not a difficulty at this stage.

Madam Speaker

Order. When the Secretary of State turns her head away from the microphone, the recording is lost.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the Secretary of State know the location of the nearest United States navy carrier group? If it could be of any use, has she interceded—or will she intercede—with her United States opposite number?

Clare Short

I do not normally monitor the location of the United States navy, but I will ask someone to find out. USAID is engaged, but I have heard no talk of deployment.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Secretary of State confident that the Ministry of Defence and other armed forces Ministries have heard her plea for more helicopters? They are clearly available to the armed forces in many countries, not just ours, and they should be sent as quickly as possible. Can the Secretary of State ensure that that happens?

Will the Department also look at the reasons for the cyclone and the flooding, and decide whether there is not a case, in the longer term, for giving more serious consideration to the need for reafforestation of much of the hinterland of both river systems, as well as a better system to give early warning of cyclones hitting the coast of Africa? There is a very good cyclone warning system in the Caribbean and the north Atlantic.

Clare Short

I will certainly talk more to my Ministry of Defence colleagues. We will consider where helicopters can be brought into theatre, but we have already discussed that, and currently they are too far away to get there quickly.

I have asked the question: are we having more cyclones and flooding? Everyone understands that global warming implies more and more such events throughout the world and more such disasters, but the advice that I have had from my officials is that it is not so much that more disasters are taking place, but that more and more people are living on frail, dangerous land, so that the number of people who are hurt by disasters is becoming greater and greater.

I do not think that deforestation is a problem in Mozambique. It is in many other countries. But I agree with my hon. Friend that we need better early warning and emergency response systems, particularly in countries that are prone to disasters. Clearly, there will be lessons for Mozambique after the disaster is over.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I accept my right hon. Friend's argument that organisation is what is required and that money is not an immediate issue, but it is obviously an issue in the long term—some of the points have just been made—and it has been an issue for Mozambique in the past.

In that context, there is growing demand in the House for some consideration of the Tobin tax: a tax on international capital speculation. Is it not time to move forward on that matter to ensure that problems such as Mozambique's can be tackled and handled in future?

Clare Short

A lot of money will be needed for the reconstruction of Mozambique, but Mozambique has frail capacity. It needs—it is doing it—to build the capacity of its administrative system, so that it can deliver reconstruction and spend the resources that are available. We and others have a growing resource to provide and Mozambique has reserves that it will, I hope, be able to spend very quickly, once the disaster has resolved itself.

The Tobin tax is a very interesting proposal, but if we are ever to get there it will take time, as all the countries of the world will have to agree to impose the tax. Although it is an attractive idea, how long will it take to achieve international consensus to introduce it? It is worth looking at, but in the meantime, we need to deploy the £50 billion in the worldwide Overseas Development Administration more effectively, and persuade our publics to put more into backing good reformers such as Mozambique, so that we can help the poorest countries in the world to grow out of poverty, which they could with more support.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Like many hon. Members, I pay tribute to the courage of the Mozambique people in dealing with the problems. In the recent election, one driver who was trying to deliver ballot boxes in Sofala province found that the whole of a road had been swept away by a very short, sharp shower.

When we talk about frail infrastructure, we are talking about communities that are often completely cut off from other communities; certainly, every year, Sofala is cut for months at a time.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the longer term, the banked railway system, which was destroyed in the civil war, will be vital to the reconstitution of Mozambique's infrastructure? Will she give the House an assurance that she recognises that and that the Government will do whatever they can to ensure that the infrastructure in Mozambique will be much more proof against such events than it has been in the past?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is right. Mozambique is a very large country with lots of land and virtually no roads. Many people live in desperate poverty and cannot get their produce to market or their children to school, or reach the health facilities that there are. We are working in Zambesia province to create local capacity to build rural roads. We need more of that throughout Mozambique, so that the economy can be built up. Roads are needed so that people can grow crops and increase their incomes. We are focusing on that.

On the railway, I do not have any detailed expert knowledge, but we are working with the World bank to help Governments to put in place feasibility studies, regulatory systems and so on, so that countries such as Mozambique can attract private sector investment. They need big investment in infrastructure to improve their economic development.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Could we hark back to the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)? The erosion is not taking place in Mozambique itself. The trouble starts in Zambia, Zimbabwe and, above all, South Africa, with much irresponsible felling. Do not the South Africans have a moral responsibility, as their rather callous use of forests has caused much of the problem in the first place?

Clare Short

I defer to my hon. Friend's expertise, although I do not know whether my natural resource advisers would agree with his analysis. There is no doubt that some of the flood waters are coming from Zimbabwe and South Africa. As we all understand, however, there has been a major change of Government in South Africa. Therefore, if there has been irresponsible felling, the current South African Government are not responsible for it. We have to help all the Governments in the region to gain the capacity to prevent disasters, to restore the environment and to overcome the type of environmental degradation caused by irresponsible felling.

As I said, I did a careful analysis of events in central America. That analysis revealed that events there were less a matter of disasters being more frequent, and more a matter of ever more people living on very frail lands. Those people were therefore terribly vulnerable when there was a disaster. We have to act on both those issues.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is my right hon. Friend genuinely convinced that—in the light of recent experiences, and certainly in the light of the past five or 10 years—the United Nations is capable of dealing with emergencies? Should it not now reprofile some of its current budgets and money? What does she think of the idea of emergency task forces, which was pressed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge)?

Clare Short

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the administrative capacity and efficiency of the United Nations is wanting. As he will know, however, Kofi Annan is leading on trying to make the UN's systems more efficient. Those systems—which were built to cope with the cold war and all the divisions in the international system—are ponderous and bureaucratic. However, we are now living in a different world, and the systems need to be much more efficient and speedy. We need major improvements throughout.

We have been working to strengthen the United Nations emergency system—including the UNDAC team—that has been developed to move into countries such as Mozambique and to help those countries to call on international assistance. We think that that work is going well. However, my hon. Friend is generally right to say that the UN system needs lots of help to be much more efficient. It is not as good as it should be.