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Conservative Party Conference: Putting older people in emergencies on the agenda

04 Oct 2011

Auri is 86 and was forced from her home in Pakistan by the recent flooding.I am blogging from Manchester, which this year is home to the Conservative Party Conference. This is the last stop for HelpAge International and Age UK's summer season of political conferences. Myself and Tom Wright, Group CEO of Age UK, have been listening to what people around the country think Nick Clegg, David Milliband and now David Cameron should do for people in later life.

It has been a successful conference season, talking to MPs and delegates about our new report, "On the edge: older people in international emergencies". Through our work with over one million older people and their families in more than 40 developing countries, we know that humanitarian disasters hit older people hard and want all politicians to take more action.

Full support for our agenda

The feedback has been positive across political parties. Firstly, at the Liberal Democrat Conference, Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the all party committee on International Development gave his full support for our agenda; we are now committed to working with him and Age UK to push for a session on vulnerable groups at a forthcoming select committee.

Secondly, at the Labour Conference, Glenys Kinnock, Leader for International Development in the House of Lords, gave a passionate speech on the challenges older people face in humanitarian and poverty situations. Then earlier in the conference here in Manchester, Stephen O'brien MP, delivered a speech linking reaching the vulnerable to making sure DFID is having the right impact. He saw and fully understood the challenges older people face in emergencies and believes the UN must do much more to give leadership in this area.

Specific vulnerabilities in disasters

Older people are vulnerable in disasters for many reasons. As the number of older people in developing countries grows, emergency planning needs to take into account their specific needs. For example, it may seem an obvious statement, but many frail older people find it harder to flee from conflict or sudden emergencies such as earthquakes. It makes sense when you start to consider it, but there is more that must be done.

Our staff on the ground have seen in life saving food distributions, aid agencies often provide rations that are targeted at women and children and unsuitable for older people. In other cases, the rations are too heavy to carry and involve having to wait in line for long periods of time.

We want to ensure the MPs we talked to and wider humanitarian community improves all emergency responses for older people. We believe that older people should be involved in the research, planning and implementation of relief responses to ensure that they are given equal recognition as a vulnerable group. It is only then that our response will be fair.

Recent floods in Pakistan affecting five million

Of course, there is sadly fitting context to be delivering this report. The HelpAge International team in London and Pakistan are currently helping around 1,000 older people and their families affected by recent flooding. Since August, heavy monsoon rains have caused flash floods throughout Sindh and Punjab provinces, affecting five million people. More than 230 people have been killed, 1.2 million houses have been destroyed or damaged and 4.5 million acres have been flooded since late last month.

More than 200,000 people have been moved to shelters while some 800,000 families hit by last year's floods are still homeless. HelpAge International has distributed 1,000 food and hygiene kits and portable drinking water to vulnerable older people and their families in Badin district in Sindh province. Around five million people are suffering from the damage done by floods.

Thousands of livestock - a key source of livelihood have died. The affected population is without food and shelter at the moment and malaria and typhoid are playing havoc. Sadly, agencies were caught ill-prepared, as there is no early warning system in place.

Wake up call to governments

Pakistan, Haiti and East Africa must not be footnotes in history. They should be a wake-up call for Governments to respond to promptly, regardless of political persuasion.

We hope that our report, demonstrates clearly how both the international community and local partners in development have to join heads and hands to help older people and contain the damage, otherwise it is likely to be accentuated over the coming weeks in Sindh and around the world.

Read more about our work with older people in natural disasters and emergency situations

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Author profile

Richard Blewitt
Country: U.K
Job title: Former HelpAge CEO

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.