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Post-earthquake Relief (Pakistan)

1 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I asked for today's debate because I wanted to ensure that we do not forget the people of Pakistan in their hour of need. Perhaps "hour of need" is the wrong phrase, because northern Pakistan will have years of need if it is to meet the many challenges that it now faces.

It is important to keep reminding ourselves of the huge scale of those challenges. We are all aware that on Saturday 8 October last year an earthquake struck, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale. Its epicentre was in the area of Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, about 95 km north of Islamabad, and it caused widespread devastation and a significant number of deaths. The challenge created by the earthquake was unprecedented in its magnitude. More than 73,000 people perished, including 35,000 children, and twice as many were injured. Half a million homes were destroyed, more than 3.5 million people were left homeless and some 1.3 million people lost their livelihoods. The homeless are equivalent to almost half the population of Switzerland.

Tens of thousands of families lost an entire generation that day. Children who left for school never returned; more than 120,000 people were injured, mostly women, children and the elderly; and thousands became disabled or paraplegic. Key public buildings and infrastructure were badly damaged, creating a catastrophe that was beyond the capacity of one country to manage on its own. Pakistan rightly sought international help, and Britain has played its part in supporting the aid effort. The immediate priority of digging people out of the wreckage soon turned to providing nearly 1 million tents, 1,800 tonnes of medicines and 73,000 tonnes of rations.

There are now 605 tented villages and 40 tented schools, and under the Pakistan Government's interim shelter strategy, 290,000 interim shelters have been constructed. The urgent and immediate priority is to help more than 3 million people to survive the harsh Himalayan winter. So far, the Government of Pakistan, in co-ordination with international partners, have been able to control the worst impact of the winter. I hope that that success will continue, but it is by no means certain, as the coldest part of the winter is traditionally in February. The scale of the disaster means that relief operations will continue—rightly—to be critical to the region for at least another year.

I know from discussions with Pakistan's high commissioner that Pakistan greatly appreciates the support that the British Government have provided so far. That has played an important role in ensuring that many people do not die unnecessarily. I have no doubt that the Minister will tell us more about the UK Government's actions.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. He is right that the earthquake brought complete devastation to many in the area. Not only the high commissioner is grateful. We managed to go to Pakistan and met the Prime Minister and other Ministers, and they were very appreciative and
 
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expressed their gratitude to the British Government and the people of the United Kingdom for the help that they have given to the victims of that devastating earthquake.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the sterling work and leadership of the Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development in helping the victims are commendable, it is unfortunate that there are still hundreds of thousands of people living in tents in freezing conditions who need our help, and that we should continue to give that help to them?

Mr. Wilson : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development will pass his comments on.

Having set the scene and brought the story up to date, I should like to turn to what we should do by way of a second phase of reconstruction and recovery. The United Kingdom has long-standing and close ties with Pakistan through the Commonwealth and the many families of Pakistani origin who live in the UK. That is particularly true in my constituency, which has a sizeable Pakistani community, many members of which originate from the area of the earthquake. They have been active in fundraising for the relief effort; indeed, the whole community in Reading—Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian—has contributed generously to the many fundraising efforts.

Substantial resources are needed, however, not only for the continuing relief work to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but for the longer-term reconstruction and rehabilitation. That work will involve rebuilding at least 400,000 homes, so that survivors do not become refugees living in tent cities; reconstructing 12,500 schools; providing rehabilitation and medical care to a generation of children; and building an estimated 1,400 basic health units, rural health centres and hospitals. The work will also involve restoring the basic infrastructure in an area where sanitation and water distribution systems, as well as Government buildings, have been completely and utterly destroyed. Entire towns and villages devastated by the calamity need to be built anew.

Pakistan estimates that it will need about $3.5 billion for the reconstruction of the social sector, the physical infrastructure and the economy. That would be a massive undertaking for any Government, but Pakistan is ensuring that the reconstruction plan provides decent living standards for its people instead of recreating slums and shanty towns, and I am told that all reconstruction will take place on the basis of earthquake-resistant designs. Priority will be given to the restoration of community infrastructure, including housing, schools, hospitals, public health, water, sanitation and Government infrastructure. The reconstruction plan appears to be a good one.

President Musharraf has launched a special initiative as part of the comprehensive plan for long-term construction and rehabilitation. Under his sponsorship programme, individuals, organisations and countries will be able to sponsor people, villages, schools, hospitals or even basic health units. Donors can also sponsor projects involving the environment, livelihood regeneration and the rehabilitation of orphans and
 
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widows. International agencies, charities and philanthropists have been invited to sponsor a health unit, a hospital or a school in the affected area.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I have a particular concern, as many of us do, having been to exactly the part of the world affected. As we are in the middle of our winter, does the hon. Gentleman think that now would be a good time to look to our local authorities, many of which want to make a further contribution, to make those project-based commitments? That might do something immediate to help the Government effort, but would also be of continuing interest in the months and years ahead.

Mr. Wilson : That is an interesting idea and I am sure that the Minister will consider it in his response.

The donation cost ranges from $25,000 for a primary school to $33 million for a university in Muzaffarabad. A basic health unit would cost about $200,000, while a leprosy hospital would need a donation of $5.8 million. In the north-west frontier province more than 8,000 schools and colleges and a university are available for donations, while in the health sector, 1,300 health facilities, such as basic health units, rural health centres and hospitals, are available. To help potential sponsors, the Pakistan Government have kindly set up a website, the address for which, for all our listeners, viewers and readers of Hansard, is www.earthquakepakistan.com.

Britain has done much but, in classic new Labour speak, there is much more to do. We must not stop now. The next five to 10 years will be crucial to reconstruction and saving lives.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and on generously giving way to three colleagues so far. We have talked about the numbers, but, important though the aid is, does he agree that it is also important to give people their dignity back? That could be done at a micro-level by enabling amputees to return to work, for example, and on a larger scale by reforming trade policy, to enable the country to trade its way out of destruction and allow people to rebuild their country themselves.

Mr. Wilson : I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point, which I shall return to later.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us the Government's long-term strategy of support. For example, what plans for long-term reconstruction have been drawn up? Do those plans have clear, measurable targets, goals and milestones? Will the process be independently audited by the National Audit Office?

I thank the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) for his intervention, and perhaps I can make a few suggestions about what Britain can do. Pakistan will continue to need money to help with reconstruction. I hope that we continue to be generous with our aid, working closely with the Pakistan Government to carefully target it for maximum impact. The British Government can encourage community organisations, and particularly the corporate sector, to take part in the
 
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reconstruction effort, by securing priority projects such as housing, schools and hospitals in the quake-affected regions.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am pleased that he has come to the part of his speech concerning what the Government can do. Will the British Government take a lead in encouraging the richer members of the Commonwealth to contribute to what is an appalling situation? All of us have been moved by the pictures on our television screens of small children, barefoot and ankle-deep in snow.

Mr. Wilson : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I hope that the Minister will deal with that question when he responds.

Doctors and paramedics in the national health service could take part in the rehabilitation programme. In the years ahead, northern Pakistan will face an acute shortage of physicians and other medical staff for the rehabilitation of trauma patients and the physically disabled, whom the hon. Member for Tooting referred to earlier.

Pakistan needs help so that it can use trade to overcome its post-earthquake challenges. Giving Pakistan special trading status in the European Union would be extremely helpful for jobs, prosperity and the overall reconstruction process. I hope that the Government are pushing hard for that, even though they no longer hold the EU presidency. Pakistan needs UK Government help with skill enhancement in many of its economic sectors, and many individuals need to be trained and reskilled. We in this country have much experience that we can share with Pakistan to help in that process.

It is important that the British Government and the British community sustain the momentum of assistance in the days, months and years ahead to help Pakistan to accomplish the enormous task of reconstruction and rehabilitation. I hope that we can give Pakistan the message today that their friends in the UK will not let them down.

1.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas) : In the traditional way, I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) on securing the debate on this important issue. He was absolutely right to remind the House of the sheer scale and impact of the south Asian earthquake that took place on 8 October last year. As he rightly says, there has been major destruction in the most highly affected area. Some 3.5 million people and 500,000 families have been affected, with nearly 2.5 million people losing their houses and 2.3 million at risk of not being able to meet their own food needs. We estimate the death toll in that part of the affected area to be about 73,000 people, with 70,000 injured. We must not forget the people of India who also lost their lives, or those badly affected by the earthquake. A number of people in Afghanistan were also affected by the earthquake; some lost their lives and some lost members of their family.

The preliminary damage and needs assessment prepared for the Government of Pakistan by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank estimated that
 
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Pakistan will need $5.2 billion for relief and reconstruction. That figure includes $1.7 billion for continuing relief and to restore livelihoods, and $3.5 billion to replace damaged and destroyed buildings and infrastructure. Relief and rehabilitation are therefore a huge challenge for Pakistan in the months to come and in the longer term, as the hon. Gentleman identified, as well as being crucial for the international community more broadly, including the Commonwealth, to which the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) alluded.

Mr. Khan : Before my hon. Friend moves on to rehabilitation and reconstruction, will he comment on whether he believes that the international rescue and relief operation was adequate? We know of the great strides that our Government took, but was the international effort adequate? Secondly, have our Government and, more importantly, the international community, learned any lessons?

Mr. Thomas : If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will come to that when I talk about the relief effort. A number of lessons that have been learned from the tsunami have helped to influence our response. The earthquake in Pakistan and the international response to it has added fuel to the case for investment in a central emergency revolving fund—an international fund to help UN agencies in the immediate aftermath of a disaster better to meet the needs of the affected communities. I am pleased to say that we have now secured United Nations General Assembly support for the launch of CERF and we hope that it will be operational by the end of March.

As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and the hon. Member for Reading, East have said, we have been playing a strong role during the relief effort, committing some £58 million-worth of support. We will continue to play a major role during reconstruction, both as a trusted partner of the Government of Pakistan and as one of the largest bilateral donors in that country. I pledged some £70   million for the reconstruction programme at the donors conference in Islamabad last November. We are working with the Government and other donors to ensure that the lessons from previous natural disasters are included in both the relief effort and the long-term reconstruction effort.

Some hon. Members will be aware, particularly those who have visited the affected areas, that such is the nature of the terrain—the area is remote and mountainous—that it is probably more challenging for the relief effort to help people to deal with the impact of the earthquake than it was to help those affected by the Asian tsunami. Road links have been badly affected, necessitating the extensive use of helicopters for relief support. In many areas the only means to get relief to those affected has been by Pakistani army patrols using mules. The harsh conditions of the Himalayan winter provide a further constraint on the rapid provision of adequate shelter and present a clear risk to survivors. The earthquake, coming as it did just before the immediate onset of winter, allowed only a short opportunity for emergency shelter and other critical facilities to be put in place.

Mr. Rob Wilson : Aid agencies suggest that many of the tents and interim shelters are proving inadequate
 
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against the winter cold. Has the Minister heard that from aid agencies, and if so, what action are the Government taking?

Mr. Thomas : I will describe in detail our response. We have obviously heard of concerns that some of the tents that have been provided have not been good enough. We have certainly been working to do everything we can to ensure that the tents that we and other donors provide are the so-called winterised tents, to provide better support to people in the way that the hon. Gentleman has rightly said needs to happen.

I believe that, given the complexity of the disaster and the way in which we need to respond, relief efforts can be judged so far to have been broadly successful in meeting the priority needs. As the hon. Member for Reading, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) said, because February is traditionally the coldest month of the year in Pakistan, we cannot afford to be at all complacent about the coming weeks and the need to maintain the relief effort at its current level, if not to step it up a gear further.

Adequate steps have been taken to prevent widespread outbreaks of diseases. There has been good collaboration between the Pakistani authorities, the Pakistan army, local and international non-governmental organisations and the international community. We have continued to play an important role in support of the relief effort, both in providing direct humanitarian assistance and in urging others—those in the Commonwealth and outside it—to do more as well.

I have said that we pledged some £58 million to the relief effort. We have so far committed some £52 million of that.

Simon Hughes : I join others in thanking the Government, through the Minister, for what they have done. Is it the view of the Government and the international community that there is available now the extra medical support and other equipment, particularly to deal with the very bad winter that may be in prospect? Is that in the region and available, or are we still short of what we may need to deal with what could be, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) said, a further crisis?

Mr. Thomas : In very broad terms, the necessary relief supplies are in the region. However, the United Nations has flagged up a shortage of female medical personnel. That is creating major problems for the UN and other humanitarian partners, because there are, of course, various cultural and traditional reasons why female people in the affected areas would want to see only a female doctor. We will obviously support the UN in discovering what can be done to remedy that problem.

Mr. Sarwar : The Minister will be aware that thousands of people—particularly young children—have lost their limbs in this disaster. We are proud to say that many British doctors are doing excellent work with the minimum of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood) and I
 
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visited Roehampton rehabilitation centre this week, which is happy to offer its expertise and capacity to establish a limbs-fitting centre in Pakistan. Will the Minister consider helping other doctors to establish limbs-fitting centres, which could help thousands of people in the region to start leading a normal life?

Mr. Thomas : I pay tribute to the assiduous lobbying of my hon. Friend, and to that of other Members not only on the Labour Benches but of other parties, who have continued to champion the cause of Pakistan. I know that my hon. Friend has met the Secretary of State to discuss this issue. The only word of caution that I would throw back to him is that we must make sure that the Government of Pakistan are in the driving seat of the reconstruction effort, and that they decide the priorities for not only the relief but the reconstruction phase. If they think that such support is necessary, we will continue to engage with the organisation to which he has alluded.

I should put on record that our direct support to the relief effort has included sending 15 relief flights and funding 78 flights for the Disasters Emergency Committee. We have also provided a range of urgently needed materials, including 5,500 winterised tents, 19,700 collapsible 10-litre jerry cans—which are crucial for the supply of water—36,000 blankets and 70,000 tarpaulins. More plastic sheets and blankets are arriving. We have provided £19 million in support of the UN's relief effort, including our crucial and continuing funding of helicopters. We have also supported the UN's activities through the NATO airlift, transporting relief items from warehouses in Europe and the middle east to Pakistan, and through the direct use of three UK Chinook military helicopters and the 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, which has been doing emergency shelter-building operations in the remote high-altitude areas in the Bagh region.

I met some of the crew of the Chinook helicopters when I visited Pakistan in November, and I wish to put on record my appreciation of the remarkable job that they were doing. They were clearly hugely appreciated by the people in the villages to whom they were airlifting supplies, and they deserve the recognition and praise of the House for their huge efforts. Our soldiers also deserve our praise for the work that they were doing; each shelter they built and the repairs to roads that they have effected have saved lives.

Mr. Khan : My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) and I and other colleagues met the excellent Chinook team out there. Does the Minister agree that we should also pay tribute to our charities—both to those on the Disasters Emergency Committee, such as the British Red Cross and Islamic Relief, and others not on the DEC that are doing sterling work, such as Muslim Hands and Helping Hands? Will he comment on today's comments of Save the Children? It said that there is an urgent need for more permanent shelter for the earthquake-affected communities in Pakistan. Although the Minister has confirmed that we have given the aid that we have pledged, what does he think about the fact that Save the Children has said that

has so far been committed?

Mr. Thomas : I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of aid agencies that were on the ground in
 
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Pakistan before the disaster struck and international non-governmental organisations that responded to the emergency, such as Islamic Relief, Oxfam and Save the Children, as well as groups such as Muslim Hands and Muslim Aid which also responded. I also pay tribute to—and I am sure that the House would want to record its appreciation of it—the generosity of the British public in helping to raise around £50 million for work to support the Disasters Emergency Committee.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) referred to the contribution that local authorities can make, and perhaps the Chamber will indulge me by allowing me to say that my local authority, Harrow, has helped to facilitate a fundraising effort among communities in my borough. Such hands-off but important and practical support is one way in which local authorities can continue to make a difference.

We are supporting the provision of more shelter, winter kit—including stoves, management and servicing of campsites—primary health care centres, mobile clinics and hospitals, women's health and counselling services, water and sanitation in camps, and food both in camps and to displaced communities in remote areas. We remain the second largest donor to the relief effort. The truth is that relief efforts are better in some areas than others and careful monitoring of the situation in the coming weeks will be needed to try to iron out some of those differences. We will continue to be part of the effort.

This debate is well timed because we need to think about the transition from the relief effort to early recovery and on to the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase. That relates to my hon. Friend's reference to Save the Children's concerns. That broader concern is well recognised in Islamabad, where the earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation authority will take over from the Federal Relief Commission to lead the long-term reconstruction effort. The hon. Member for Reading, East is right to say that it will not be possible to complete that soon; it is a two-year, three-year or five-year process and for some people it will take a very long time indeed to recover. One of the immediate concerns that we must recognise is support to households to restore their livelihoods at an early stage—for example, through cash-for-work schemes.
 
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We will continue to play an important role during reconstruction. We are one of the group of seven large donors who are working closely with the Pakistan Government to meet the recovery challenge. We have made it clear that we will do everything possible to help Pakistan to recover and that is why I pledged some £70 million-worth of support for that reconstruction effort.

On infrastructure alone, again as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, a huge effort will be needed to replace the facilities that were destroyed: 4,000 km of roads need to be replaced or repaired, 400,000 homes need to be constructed, 7,500 schools need to be repaired and nearly 600 primary health clinics and other medical facilities need to be provided. The earthquake destroyed some 84 per cent. of the housing stock in Kashmir and the north-west frontier province. There is a huge job of work to be done.

As I said earlier, we can learn lessons from previous disasters to ensure that best practice in responding is brought to bear on the reconstruction effort. I am pleased that the Pakistani authorities and the seven major donors who are supporting them have agreed to make sure that a set of principles based on that international best practice is adhered to.

Mr. Rob Wilson : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thomas : Not now.

We are keen to ensure a long-term effort on disaster risk reduction so that buildings are better built as a result of the disaster.

In general, I recognise the concerns about trade and we continue to represent the Pakistani case to other member states of the European Union. We are expecting some reports shortly which I hope will help to move things forward in the way to which the hon. Member for Reading, East alluded. We recognise the importance of responding to Pakistan's needs. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling this debate and to other hon. Members for their assiduous and continuing efforts to make sure that the issue is not forgotten inside or outside the House.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Once again the timing was impeccable.
 
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