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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Liz O'Donnell: Sending relief in the aftermath of a disaster is just the beginning

Published 19/11/2013 | 02:00

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Volunteers help with disaster relief supplies in the Philippines.

The unfolding scale of the disaster caused by the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has tested the capacity of the international community to respond.

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The UN has called for a $300m (€221bn) fund to meet immediate needs. But one week on, the response has been to pledge or give just half of that figure. This is regrettable given the scale of unmet need of survivors with millions of people displaced and homeless.

As usual Ireland has made a generous response to the disaster both as Government and by way of public donations. All the Irish aid agencies are involved in what is a race against time to deliver shelter food and water to survivors.

Irish people are uniquely generous in their support of needy causes at home and abroad; an indication of civilised values and our race memory of poverty, famine and emigration.

The corporate world too has a role to play in addressing global poverty and humanitarian disasters. Increasingly, the business community and corporations are embracing ambitious corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. I witnessed such an outreach by a company, Syncreon – originally based in Ireland but now a successful global player in transport and logistics – when it organised a successful event in its HQ in Detroit last week for Adi Roche's Chernobyl Children International (CCI). Syncreon, headed up by Limerick man Brian Enright and his family, decided to support Roche's work as part of their CSR programme in 2013. This event in Detroit's Gem Theatre was the culmination of that solidarity with CCI's humanitarian work in the affected regions of Belarus and Ukraine.

Roche has made it her life's work to respond to the unmet needs of the children and young adults affected directly and indirectly by the nuclear explosion in 1986. That type of unwavering dedication to a cause by an individual is so infectious and admirable that it motivated Syncreon management teams all over the world to fundraise and support her efforts. For the company, the "giving" has been rewarding.

All the senior executives at the event spoke of the satisfaction they have personally experienced, arising out of their giving of their time and efforts over the year. It has transformed their working relationships and enriched their corporate ethical identity. But beyond the immediate humanitarian response to humanitarian disasters whether man-made or natural there is always a bigger picture, heavily laden with politics. There are complex policy imperatives arising out of the devastation in the Philippines related to climate change and population control. For example, the population of the Philippines has grown five fold in the last 50 years to 100 million, most of them living in low-lying coastal areas and vulnerable to typhoons and tsunamis.

Similarly, apart from the assistance CCI brings to thousands of children with disabilities and congenital heart defects in Belarus and Ukraine, Roche has long been an advocate not just for the rights of children with disabilities but about the dangers of nuclear power. The disaster at Chernobyl happened 27 years ago but it has not gone away. The damaged reactor is a leaking ruin. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, the USSR hastily built a sarcophagus to encase the exploded reactor designed to contain the lethal radioactive material inside.

But it soon became evident that a more permanent structure was needed.

After years of research, a project known as the NSC (the New Safe Confinement structure) was planned whereby a new airtight shelter would be constructed at a cost of €1.54bn. It is an unprecedented engineering project in a hazardous environment, managed by the EBRD and is due to be finished in October 2015. Even then it will only last for about 100 years.

Radiation knows no borders. In 1986, 70pc of the radioactive cloud and debris descended on Belarus because of the wind direction. Twenty-eight per cent of the land mass of Belarus was permanently contaminated although the Chernobyl nuclear plant is located in neighbouring Ukraine. The environmental, health and economic impact has been horrendous for the affected regions of Belarus, Western Russia and Ukraine. The UN has described the Chernobyl explosion as the greatest environmental disaster in history. What is not widely appreciated is that only 3pc of the original nuclear material was expelled in 1986, leaving behind 216 tons of uranium and plutonium buried inside the exploded reactor.

Chernobyl debris is estimated to remain radioactive for hundreds and thousands of years. The contaminated zone and abandoned city of Pripyat is like a modern day Pompeii. It seems incredible that we sleep in our beds while this toxic ruin remains unsafe on the landmass of Europe.

Out of sight and out of mind; apart from the occasional site visit by Roche and her team to remind us of the lurking danger within.

Irish Independent

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