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The most under-reported humanitarian disasters of 2012

David Bull
typhoon1 getty 300x225 The most under reported humanitarian disasters of 2012

Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines left at least 1,600 people dead and 5.4 million people affected

Every year, humanitarian disasters take a devastating toll on the lives and futures of millions of children around the world, and 2012 was no exception. The numbers of children affected are staggering, so much that it is hard to comprehend why so many of these disasters rarely make the headlines.

UNICEF began the year having issued a stark warning in December 2011 that more than one million children would suffer from severe, life-threatening malnutrition in the Sahel region of West Africa and would need specialist treatment. This nutrition crisis, caused by a combination of drought and high food prices, would require an unprecedented response by governments, UNICEF and other UN agencies, and humanitarian organisations if we were to avert a catastrophe.

It was not a famine, but we were talking about a huge number of very young children at risk of starvation, and the lack of media interest in this crisis was both surprising and incredibly frustrating. When fighting escalated in Mali (one of the nine affected countries in the Sahel region), the number of people needing emergency assistance increased not just in Mali, but also in neighbouring countries that were hosting refugees. The conflict and the political crisis sparked some media interest, but once again, there were hardly any reports of the situation of people being forced to flee their homes, or of the worsening nutrition crisis.

UNICEF launched a global social media campaign and managed to increase awareness of the Sahel crisis and the need for urgent action to save lives. The ‘SahelNOW’ campaign was supported by many of UNICEF’s Ambassadors and generated nearly 35,000 social media hits in just over a month, helping to increase donations. The generosity of supporters and a tremendous humanitarian effort meant that UNICEF and partners were able to give appropriate care to every single child who arrived at a treatment centre throughout the year. By the end of 2012, more than 850,000 children across the Sahel were expected to have received life-saving treatment for severe malnutrition.

Meanwhile in September 2012, monsoon rains in Pakistan caused extensive flooding for the third year in a row. Nearly five million people in three provinces were affected by the 2012 monsoon floods, according to the Pakistani government. Houses, school buildings, health facilities and roads had suffered major damage. Crops and livestock, which are a primary source of income for the majority of families, had been lost. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and living in temporary shelters, with dire needs. In the aftermath of flood emergencies, without proper shelter, clean water, health care, and warm clothes, children are especially vulnerable to diseases and malnutrition. Many are also unable to attend school. As with the previous two floods, UNICEF and its partners on the ground have been working to reach affected children and their families, by providing vaccinations, treatment for malnutrition, access to safe drinking water, psychosocial support, temporary schools and much more.

This disaster has had an extreme impact on so many children and families, but with little media coverage, it has been a struggle for humanitarian agencies like UNICEF to raise the funds urgently needed to reach as many people as possible. By the end of the year, we had only received 57% of the funds needed to respond to the needs of children and families affected by the floods.

In October, while our television screens and newspapers were inundated with images of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on parts of the US, far less attention was being paid to the impoverished Caribbean island of Haiti. Still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake in 2010, Haiti had suffered from two months of heavy rain before it was hit by Sandy on October 23. The UN estimated that more than two million people in Haiti were affected, with 1.5 million of them living in severely food insecure areas where crops had been destroyed. UNICEF was particularly concerned that at least 4,000 children were at risk of severe malnutrition, and that the lack of clean water and sanitation facilities could lead to an increase in cholera cases. We launched an immediate response, focusing on malnutrition, cholera prevention and education.

Tragically, we ended the year with another major natural disaster, this time in the Philippines, where December’s Typhoon Bopha left at least 1,600 people dead or missing, and 5.4 million people affected. Some villages had been completely wiped out, and thousands of families were left homeless and in urgent need of food, water and shelter. Our teams were ready to respond with emergency supplies in place, and rapidly ensured that children and families had clean water, personal hygiene items, latrines, and medical and nutrition supplies.

In addition to these large-scale disasters that required immediate responses, UNICEF continued to work in countries where complex and long-standing emergency conditions endanger children’s lives and futures. Year in, year out, these “silent emergencies” in countries like Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan, rarely feature on the news agenda, and it is largely thanks to the flexible funding that we receive from both government donors and committed members of the public that we have been able to continue helping to make a difference to children’s lives in these countries.

2012 was undoubtedly a year filled with challenges, but UNICEF has been able to respond quickly. If only all these humanitarian disasters received the media attention they deserve, thereby informing the general public of the true extent of humanitarian needs, perhaps UNICEF would raise far more money and would reach even more children who need our help. Donors and supporters in the UK always respond generously and quickly to emergency humanitarian appeals as long as they know about the need and can see how their support can make a difference to the affected children. We rely on the media to get these messages out.

When emergencies don’t get the coverage they deserve, UNICEF efforts to help those children are restricted. Thankfully, new means of communication like Twitter do now enable us to get those messages out, as we did through the ‘SahelNOW’ campaign. We still need traditional media but we now have another option and we have to use it.

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