Anyone who visits the annual meeting of Swiss Humanitarian Aid and the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit SHA, witnesses in one afternoon the spirit that constitutes humanitarian Switzerland, what its commitment is all about and how it succeeds in the urgently required mission in our world. The number of victims of disasters has gone up worldwide in recent years. Due to this development, the question arises: Are there ways to identify risks at an early stage and to counteract them effectively and successfully? The title of the annual Conference of Humanitarian Aid was indeed: Understanding risks – reducing disasters.
Manuel Bessler, head of SHA, introduced the topic. He explained the importance of risk management in a world that is regularly hit by disasters of any kind. Given the political-military disasters dominating the last year, natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods played a subordinate role. Currently, a special challenge is the plight of refugees in and around Syria. Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter expressed this in his speech. For him, the “humanitarian aid is a matter of the heart: it’s the heart of our Swiss values; it is the core of our commitment, our activity, as well as the focus of today’s meeting”. Didier Burkhalter expressed his particular concern about the situation in Syria, about the huge number of suffering people, especially women and children, and the inconceivable misery. They were the victims of contrasting interests of the great powers, he said. Burkhalter put his hopes on the United Nations Security Council, which should initiate the necessary steps for a peaceful solution. One could not solve the conflict by humanitarian aid, it had to be solved politically. Further conflicts concern the international community. These include the violent conflicts in Central Africa, in South Sudan, in the Ukraine and most recently also in Yemen, where about 16 million people are dependent on support due to the economic crisis and a lack of water supply.
In addition to the political and military disasters, however, there is also concern about the negative impact of climate change by which about 20 million of the world’s refugees are affected, according to the UN. In total, there are 55 million people who fled their homes – this is seven times the population of Switzerlandand – and lack the essentials for survival. Since the Second World War to date, never have there been so many people on the run. Didier Burkhalter raised the question of Switzerland’s contribution to alleviating the situation given the great experience and appropriate instruments that the country owns to help concentrated and successful: by “heart and mind”. He spoke of a “paradigm shift in humanitarian commitment”, where one increasingly aims at prevention and tries to make provisions before the disaster occurs. According to estimates of the United Nations the amount of annual loss caused by natural disasters is $ 300 billion. The UN Conference in Sendai/Japan, a city which was severely destroyed by the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, discussed the possible reduction of disaster risks. Switzerland played a leading role in this, the Swiss experts were renowned worldwide and “enjoyed a good reputation”. People in Switzerland gained valuable experience in dealing with natural disasters in their own country with its difficult topography. So, already in 1876, Switzerland had a forest law, which was unique in Europe. Burkhalter praised “the sophisticated population protection system”, in which “disaster risk reduction [had] a high priority”. These experiences of Switzerland played a central role in the Sendai preparatory conferences, which were held in Geneva, as well as at the Sendai Conference itself. In the affected areas Switzerland established shelters against cyclones. For instance, that blew across the country at a storm force of up to 300 kilometers per hour.
In Pakistan with the help of the native population, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) built protective structures and walls on steep slopes that could prevent a washing out of the ground and subsequent landslides. It was a difficult task to persuade the people that constructions high up on the hillside protected the village far down in the valley. But by close cooperation between the SDC and domestic helpers, this project was brought to a successful end.
In the context of risk-management, the SDC started a project on disaster prevention together with the Moroccan Government in an earthquake zone. Switzerland repeatedly provided support during disasters in Morocco, so it seemed natural that the Moroccan Government asked Switzerland for support in establishing a national rescue team in 2008. The SDC took on this task together with the rescue chain. The Swiss Rescue Chain has a “certification of the International Advisory Group for Search- and Rescue services (INSARAG)”, which certifies that a search and rescue team can do rescue operations in the situation of major disasters, especially after the great earthquake. During training, realistic exercises were conducted in Morocco and in Switzerland to prepare the team of approximately 100 specialists for the challenging task and the certification. After a 70 hours-examination, Morocco received the international certificate as the first African state and the 40th state worldwide. So this team is as well entitled to official operations in case of disasters in other countries.
In addition to this team of professionals, which were trained by Switzerland, SDC supports the training of 800 Moroccan civilian volunteers to strengthen national security. The volunteers are to be able to deploy faster in the narrow alleys of the Moroccan cities like Fes or Sefrou, for instance, even before the professional forces reach the site. They are equipped with important material such as uniforms, gloves, fire extinguishers, hydraulic pumps, first aid sets, etc.,which they take home in part.
The Moroccan ambassador was present at the event in Berne and expressed his gratitude for the Swiss commitment and emphasised the great contribution of Switzerland. Its commitment to civil protection and humanitarian aid, so the Moroccan ambassador, did not only have a beneficial impact on his own country, but was going to strengthen the civil protection world-wide. He was also pleased about the good performance of both the professional rescue teams and the organisation of volunteers who can be used immediately in a situation of disaster.
In the end, Manuel Sager, Director General of the SDC, stressed that disaster preparedness is an integral part of a sustainable development. “Disaster preparedness bridges the gap between humanitarian assistance and cooperation in development”, which contributes not only to protecting the livelihood of the people, but as well helps protect the developmental progress against natural disasters. The humanitarian operations of Switzerland in all continents of our world are huge. In addition to the SDC’s long-term professional help, there is the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, which is primarily recruited from volunteers for ad hoc deployment in a disaster area. The operations are limited in time and should address the largest needs after an earthquake as was the case some years ago in Haiti or the flood disaster in Pakistan or in other countries of the world with emergency relief, even before the long-term reconstruction aid can start. This beneficent task couldn’t be attained without the volunteers. Catherine Leutenegger is a voluntary and tells us in the following interview, what urged her to sign in at the Swiss disaster relief unit and what consequences it had for herself and her life. •
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