Interview with David Shearer, UN Humanitarian Coordinator

After 34 days of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a ceasefire came into effect on 14 August, paving the way for vital humanitarian work to begin in the region. However, the local and international aid community operating in Lebanon continues to face major challenges, according to the United Nations.

With a core mandate to strengthen the UN’s response to complex emergencies and natural disasters, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) plays an integral role in coordinating humanitarian aid efforts. In an exclusive interview with IRIN on Tuesday, UN Humanitarian Coordinator David Shearer talked about the priorities and challenges ahead.

QUESTION: What are the main priorities for the UN in Lebanon?

ANSWER: The big priority is to try to support the people returning to their homes. In many cases, those who have tried to return home, particularly to the south, have found their houses very badly damaged, if not totally destroyed.

It is difficult to assess quite how many homes have been destroyed or damaged. But there are areas where Israel used 3,000 to 6,000 different forms of artillery, mortars and bombs every single day, with the high point coming in the last 48 hours prior to the ceasefire. This definitely tells us something about the scale of the destruction in the south. We have seen that the centres of towns have been worst hit, while peripheral areas have been less affected.

At the moment, the agencies involved – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Programme, UN Children’s Fund, World Health Organisation, UN Population Fund, UN Development Programme and OCHA - are working on assessing the damage and sending aid out to people.

Q: What is the long-term strategy to house those who have lost their homes?

A: It depends. Most people in that situation have either moved in with relatives or friends, or into unoccupied houses. In some cases, people whose homes have been damaged have moved back in nonetheless. Particularly with winter and the rain coming, we need to provide them with plastic sheeting to make their damaged homes weather-proof.

In some cases we have also started to provide tents, not because people might want to stay in them so much but because it might provide them with extra room. In the longer term, UNHCR [which is helping people return to their homes] has been working with the Lebanese government to find the best ways to repair houses. It is a process that is both emergency-based and long term.

In addition, we are looking at housing people living with other families. In these cases, the burden is on the host family, both financially and because of overcrowding.

Q: What is being done to restore basic infrastructure, such as water and electricity systems?

A: The government has started very rapidly to get things moving on large water works. What we have done is based more on providing emergency help. For instance, we have provided a lot of fuel to hospitals in areas where they have become dependent on generators owing to a lack or shortage of electricity. Also we have sent fuel to villages relying on water pumps, as well as sending clean water.

Q: In some areas, Hezbollah has more influence than the government. How is the UN working with Hezbollah in the relief effort?

A: We are trying to work as much as we can through local government, particularly the municipalities, which are very close to the people. On occasion, we have worked with particularly effective local non-governmental organisations. We find the better way to reach the people is by working with the established authorities.

Q: Many people feel the ceasefire is fragile and the situation could spiral out of control again. Does that tension hamper the aid efforts?

A: In fact, in many ways we feel that the more we can get things back to normal, as quickly as possible, the more we can avert such a situation. That normalisation process assists in the creation for a better basis for peace.

Q: Is the ongoing naval blockade affecting the relief effort?

A: We don’t have any problems with the naval blockade. But in the larger scheme of the Lebanese economy, humanitarian assistance is a small input and targets the most vulnerable. Overall, if the naval blockade continues then the whole of Lebanon becomes more and more vulnerable. The only way that Lebanon’s economy can bounce back is by the blockade being lifted.

Q: Are delays in the deployment of international troops affecting the relief effort?

A: No. There are already 2,500 troops in the south, as well as the Lebanese army. We have continued to deliver [aid] without any problems right down to the border, and we will continue to do so.

Q: How much will it cost to reconstruct the country?

A: It is impossible for me to know. But the government is developing its own early recovery policy and moving it quite fast. We’re trying to support them as best we can on that front. It is really important that the government is seen to be leading both the recovery and the reconstruction process. If the recovery process can get under way soon enough, I am hoping the humanitarian assistance can be scaled down for the effort to be handed over to the government.

SA/SZ/ED/MW