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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

24 May 2019

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the International Telecommunication Union, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Water shortages for refugees in Teknaf, Bangladesh

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“Low rainfall in parts of southeast Bangladesh’s Teknaf peninsula means that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and partners are expecting in the next 10-12 days to begin trucking water to more than 140,000 Rohingya refugees living there.

With only sporadic rainfall since November, the water table has dropped to the point where water supplies for refugee settlements are now at critical level. Already, two weeks ago, the daily ration of water for refugees was reduced from the normal minimum standard of 20 litres a day per person to 15 litres a day. As always, reducing water availability increases concern over hygiene and health standards and the potential of water-borne diseases — something humanitarian agencies fight hard to prevent.

Trucking water is expensive, but it is a life-saving measure. We estimate that the cost of transporting water by road to settlements sheltering some 140,000 refugees could be up to USD 60,000 a month. Current weather models are not forecasting rain any time soon.

The geography of refugee settlements in southern Teknaf means that groundwater is not available through boreholes. All water must be preserved by capturing rain water in small reservoirs — something that is now depleted. Water shortages in this part of Bangladesh occur during the summer period and affect refugees and the local population alike. This year the situation is being compounded by the El Niño phenomenon.

During the summer, temperatures in this part of Bangladesh can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the settlements. With the monsoon due to arrive in June, UNHCR is expanding efforts to build better facilities to capture and preserve rain water.

UNHCR is working to establish reservoirs and more advanced and sustainable facilities for rain capture that can be an asset for host communities in the area and help resolve some of the chronic water shortages that have affected the area since before the refugees arrived.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that at the Kutupalong settlement in the northern part of the peninsula, water was still being extracted from boreholes. Paradoxically, preparations were ongoing to ensure that when the monsoon rains arrived they would not become a destructive force. While there was not yet any evidence of disease outbreaks as a result of the reduction in water rations, the situation was being monitored closely. Only one-fifth of the USD 920 million needed for the 2019 Joint Response Plan had been received so far.

Situation of malnourished children in Afghanistan

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), made the following statement:

“In Afghanistan, the nutritional situation of children is alarming.

Among the 2 million children under the age of five years who are suffering from acute malnutrition, 600,000 children are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which is the most dangerous form of undernutrition in children.

Afghanistan is one of the countries with the highest numbers of children under the age of five suffering from severe acute malnutrition, alongside Yemen and South Sudan.

In 2018, UNICEF, who is the sole provider of ready-to-use therapeutic food for malnourished children in Afghanistan, could so far only target less than 50 per cent of severely malnourished children due to limited supplies. For 2019, the plan is to reach 60 per cent of them. However, we will not reach them if we do not get within three weeks the required funding of USD 7 million (equivalent to 107,000 cartons of ready-to-use therapeutic food).

If we do not get this funding within three weeks, we will not be able to procure, bring in and distribute the required supplies to the 1,300 health facilities supported by UNICEF across all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Children will not have access to the required treatment.

Any child suffering from severe acute malnutrition is a crisis and needs to be treated to survive. So, what will happen if we do not receive USD 7 million within three weeks? We cannot tell you how many children will die. But we can tell you that a child with severe acute malnutrition is 11 times more likely to die than their healthy peers. Acute malnutrition reduces resistance to disease. In Afghanistan, only 1 in 2 children are vaccinated. The implications also include lifelong physical and cognitive impairment.

The situation is complex against the backdrop of continued violence, climatic extremes (droughts and flash floods), multiple displacements, growing food insecurity and improper feeding habits. The impact of the drought in 2018 has made matters worse and is further aggravating in 2019 the poor nutritional situation of children. From data analysis in 2018, drought-affected areas had an increase in 25 per cent in children affected by severe acute malnutrition. The findings of the most recent nutrition surveys across Afghanistan also show that 22 out of 34 provinces are currently above the emergency threshold of acute malnutrition.

We have had to put on hold the plan to further decentralize treatment, bringing it closer to children in need, due to limited resources. Without an improvement in the overall food and nutrition security situation, which requires urgent funding, the nutritional status of children in Afghanistan is likely to further deteriorate.

The UNICEF programme on nutrition in Afghanistan is only 50 per cent funded (USD 13 million out of the USD 26.5 million needed in 2019).”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Boulierac said that 2019 marked 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan. The situation had become particularly challenging in 2018 as a result of a spike in violence and an unprecedented drought. The provinces most affected by the drought were mainly those in the western and northern areas of the country. While it was impossible to predict how many of the children affected might die, it was clear that large numbers were in an extremely serious situation. The number of children suffering in Afghanistan had unfortunately remained stagnant in recent years.

Asked whether it was correct that the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition in Afghanistan was double that in Yemen, Mr. Boulierac said that the number for Afghanistan was 600,000 while the number for Yemen was 360,000. However, it was not possible to make a comparison of the gravity of each situation on that basis. Each country had its own history and specific characteristics.


Update on the World Health Assembly

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that at the plenary meeting scheduled for 24 May, the World Health Assembly would adopt resolutions on primary health care, community health workers, preparations for the high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on universal health coverage, and health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Golan Heights. Following the plenary, Committees A and B would begin their consideration of other issues, including prevention and control of non-communicable diseases and ending tuberculosis.

A technical briefing on promoting local production of medicines and other health technologies was scheduled from 12.30 p.m. to 2 p.m. on 24 May in Room XXIII at the Palais des Nations. Speakers at the briefing would include the Director-General of WHO and senior officials from UNIDO, UNCTAD, UNAIDS, UNICEF and the Global Fund. A draft resolution on improving the transparency of markets for medicines, vaccines and other health-related products and other technologies had been presented by Egypt, Greece, Italy, Malaysia, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain and Turkey and would be discussed on 27 May.

On 25 May, Committee A would discuss promoting the health of refugees and migrants, smallpox eradication and the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases.

Asked about the bilateral meeting between the Director-General of WHO and the delegation of Venezuela, Ms. Chaib said that it was common practice for the Director-General to meet with most, if not all, of the delegations participating in the World Health Assembly.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib said that Norway was not currently listed as a sponsor of the draft resolution on pricing transparency. She noted that new treatments for cancer or diabetes could be prohibitively expensive even in wealthy countries.

AI for Good Global Summit

Monika Gehner, for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said that the AI for Good Global Summit would be held at the International Conference Centre in Geneva from 28 to 31 May. The entirety of the event would be webcast.

Fred Werner, Head of Strategic Engagement Division, ITU, said that the Summit had been organized by ITU in partnership with 37 United Nations entities. The idea behind the Summit was to use the convening power of the United Nations to bring together stakeholders who did not usually engage with each other. Representatives of United Nations agencies, leading AI companies and NGOs would attend the event alongside academics from more than 50 universities. In total, 2,600 registrations had been received from more than 120 countries. The participants would be looking to identify practical ways to apply AI in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The Summit was action-oriented: in 2018, it had generated 35 projects, including a joint initiative between ITU and the World Health Organization to examine how AI could advance health care.

Asked to provide examples of how AI could be used to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, Mr. Werner said that the projects that had emerged from the 2018 Summit included the use of satellite imagery and big data analysis to make reliable predictions of crop yield that would encourage companies to provide microinsurance products for small-scale farmers in developing countries.

In response to further questions from journalists, Mr. Werner said that ethics would be a cross-cutting theme at the Summit. On 31 May, a session would be dedicated to selecting appropriate ethics guidelines when using AI. Timnit Gebru, who was both Head of AI Ethics at Google and a representative of Black in AI, would be one of the keynote speakers at the Summit.

Asked which Chinese companies would be attending the Summit, Mr. Werner said that representatives of a number of companies would be present, among them Baidu and iFLYTEK. Representatives of Huawei would speak about technical aspects of AI in relation to optimizing networks.

OSE Syria Update

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on 29 May, the Special Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, would brief the Security Council in New York on the latest developments regarding the political process and the implementation of resolution 2254. The meeting would be held in closed consultation.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Conference on Disarmament would hold its next public plenary meeting — the first under the presidency of Venezuela — on 28 May at 10 a.m. The second part of the session for 2019 would run until 28 June.

Ms. Vellucci recalled that the first-ever conference on ending sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises was currently under way in Norway. A press release had been sent to the journalists by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Ms. Vellucci also said that Africa Day would be celebrated on 25 May. In a message for the occasion, which marked the fifty-sixth anniversary of the founding of the African Union, the Secretary-General had praised the boundless energy and optimism of Africa's young people. He had called for the United Nations and the African Union to build on their strengthened partnership to make their cooperation more effective, efficient and mutually-reinforcing, based on the principles of African ownership, mutual respect, complementarity and interdependence.

Press conferences

Monday, 27 May at 10:30 a.m. in Press Room 1

WHO

Update on the World Health Assembly (20-28 May)

Speaker:
• Fadela Chaib, WHO Communications officer and spokesperson

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog240519