UN warns of "acute humanitarian crisis" in Pool region

The UN has warned that despite improvements on the political front, an "acute humanitarian crisis" remains in the Pool region of southern Republic of Congo following a year of hostilities that ended in March 2003.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Tuesday that several inter-agency humanitarian assessment missions to the region between May and August revealed that infrastructure had been completely destroyed, sanitation was seriously lacking, the health and nutritional situation was "of grave concern", and children, in particular, were dying of acute malnutrition.

Meanwhile, NGOs have reported illnesses such as measles, skin diseases, tuberculosis, and malaria. The death rate has increased significantly, especially in Kindamba and Kimba, OCHA said, while in other areas, the people must walk over 60 km to reach NGO health centres.

The Congolese Ministry of Social Affairs, Solidarity and Humanitarian Action said the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) had reached about 100,000; with that expected to increase as people who had fled into the forest returned to their villages to find that their homes had been destroyed and their crops devastated. Furthermore, reconstruction remains a challenge for the population due to large-scale looting, resulting in a lack of tools such as hoes, machetes, axes and other items.

With the rainy season fast approaching and due to last until mid-June 2004, making access to beneficiaries nearly impossible, OCHA has organized a relief flight from the UN humanitarian response depot in Brindisi, Italy, that is due to arrive in the capital, Brazzaville, on Wednesday. The cargo contains relief items such as water storage and distribution equipment, tents, sanitation items, blankets and kitchen items donated by the governments of Norway and Italy.

Following an appeal from the Congolese government for aid of Pool IDPs, France has provided €80,000 (US $86,552), the US has provided $78,000 and China has given over $25,000. The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office, ECHO, has also been providing aid through such partners as the International Committee for the Red Cross, and international NGOs Medecins Sans Frontieres, International Rescue Committee and Alisei.

Improved humanitarian access to Pool follows a peace agreement signed on 17 March between the government and "Ninja" rebels of Rev Frederic Bitsangou, alias Pasteur Ntoumi, which ended a year of hostilities. Tens of thousands of people fled the region, while fighting trapped many more. Those who escaped were usually able to receive relief support, but access to the vast majority left behind in Pool had been sporadic if not impossible.