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War and accountability

On 23 and 24 May, the ICRC organized a new international humanitarian forum at Wolfsberg (Switzerland). The main theme of the event was the accountability of humanitarian and political actors to the people whose lives are affected by armed conflict. The participants hailed from political, humanitarian, military and economic circles, as well as from the media. A unique aspect of this year's forum was the presence of survivors of the armed conflicts in Rwanda, Guatemala, South Africa, Afghanistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their personal accounts and the role played in each case by the political and humanitarian actors formed the basis for the debates.

In a wide exchange of views, the participants were encouraged to consider the people affected by armed conflict not as passive "victims" but rather as "survivors" who have a voice and can work together to bring to account those responsible for their tragic lot. Certain participants felt that the involvement of local institutions, when it concerned meeting basic humanitarian needs, was an effective means of achieving this end. It was also the general opinion that humanitarian organizations could show more commitment to the survivors of armed conflicts by working closely with them beyond the emergency phase.

Drought in Sri Lanka

More than 400,000 people are affected by drought in southern Sri Lanka after three successive years of crop failure and poor rainfall. Sri Lanka Red Cross and Federation assessments have found that people are receiving just one-third of their daily energy and protein requirements. In the south-eastern district of Hambantota, the average birth weight has fallen and the number of dysentery cases is four times higher the national average.

Last year the Sri Lanka Red Cross, with support from a Federation appeal, distributed food to 21,000 people over six months in the worst-affected areas of Hambantota. But with rains failing again, many families are reduced to eating one or two meals a day.

"Although staple foods are available in the markets, people can't afford to buy them. Prices have risen by 50 per cent and casual work opportunities have dried up just like the paddy fields," said Erwin Bulathasinghala, secretary general of the Sri Lanka Red Cross. "And those who pawned everything to moneylenders to buy seeds have seen their crops wither and die, leaving them in a desperate financial situation."


Preparing for climate change

The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre came into being in June at The Hague. Established by the Netherlands Red Cross, the centre will strengthen Red Cross and Red Crescent relief aid programmes by making better use of scientific data on climate change and extreme weather. "By facilitating an exchange of ideas between the worlds of meteorological science and emergency relief," says Eva von Oelreich, Federation head of disaster preparedness, "the centre hopes to put the impact of climate change and the resulting natural disasters on the agenda of policy-makers and organizations in the field."

Scientists believe that extreme rainfall or drought arising from increasing global temperatures in this century will lead to more frequent and more severe disasters. Floods and landslides could threaten more people; crop failures could lead to an increase in malnutrition; and diseases like malaria and dengue fever could reach places where people are less resistant to them.

The dzud continues

For the third year in a row the Mongolian Red Cross and the Federation are providing relief to nomadic herders and their families on the Mongolian steppes. Droughts last summer, followed by heavy winter snowfalls and extreme temperatures have led to an ongoing dzud in the country, especially in two south-western provinces and to a lesser extent in four others.

A dzud, the accumulation of natural hazards, including severe drought in summer, unusually cold temperatures in autumn and winter followed by very heavy snowfall, is unique to Mongolia.

Worst affected is the Gobi Altai province, where many districts have seen up to 70 per cent of all animals die over the winter. Nearly 40 per cent of all livestock in the province have died in the last five months - over 650,000 animals.

The Mongolian Red Cross, supported by the Federation, is continuing to provide assistance to affected herders and their families. Relief goods - wheat flour, cooking oil, tea, clothing, felt boots - are being distributed to 3,700 families to help them prepare for the coming winter. Also, over 17,000 radio receivers are being distributed to herders, breaking their isolation and enabling them to listen to weather reports.

The Mongolian dzud is exacerbating deep-rooted problems in this country as it undergoes the painful transition from a highly centralized socialist to a market economy. At the same time, global climate changes are also affecting the country.


Helping hand in Argentina

José Lopez knows that once a day he will receive a meal at a comedor popular, a soup kitchen run by the Argentine Red Cross. It will be basic, but it will help him survive the current socio-economic crisis that has left up to half of the country's population living under the poverty line.

The social situation in Argentina has deteriorated dramatically over recent years, and particularly since the beginning of 2002. Since 1999, there has been a significant increase in the number of people living below the poverty line and health and education services have eroded. Two large sectors of society have been profoundly affected by the crisis: the poor who already had limited or no access to food and health services, and a significant majority of the middle class who now have no access to public health services.

The Argentine Red Cross, with the help of the Spanish Red Cross, is running or supporting a number of soup kitchens in some of the most depressed areas of the country. It is also assisting orphanages and day-care centres unable to continue providing services. As long as the economic crisis continues, the goal is to ensure the sustainability of these services in all 24 branches of the Argentine Red Cross. With their help, perhaps José Lopez and others like him can eat regular meals with an easy mind, knowing that their families are getting help.

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