World rushes relief to South Asian tsunami survivors

Posted: 4 January 2005

A week after the giant earthquake and tsunamis hit the Indian Ocean coast on December 26, the death toll was approaching 150,000, with double that number injured and some 5 million made homeless or otherwise affected. This report from the Environment News Service sums up the world's early reaction to the disaster.

The number of people killed in the giant earthquake and tsunamis that hit Indian Ocean coasts December 26 reached 144,000 in 11 countries today {January 3}, as over 14,000 more deaths were confirmed by Indonesian officials. Indonesia was hardest hit by the quake centered under the sea off northwestern Sumatra, and health ministry officials predicted the death toll on the island could top 100,000.

Sri Lankan officials said that the country's death toll would likely top 35,000 as casualty reports are still coming in. The confirmed number of deaths in Sri Lanka today is 29,755, and officials at the National Disaster Management Center put the number of people missing at 5,540. The official toll in India has reached at least 14,962, including 5,510 people the government says are missing and feared dead.

India's remote, low-lying Andaman and Nicobar Islands were smashed by the giant waves. Spread over 700 square miles, they present a daunting challenge to any administrative effort. However, the Indian government has mounted the biggest relief operation since Independence with more than 15,500 troops, ships, planes and helicopters. But the devastation on Car Nicobar island is almost total, and officials fear the death toll will increase as those counted as missing are given up for lost.

In Thailand, interior ministry figures put the death toll at 5,046 - 2,459 foreigners, 2,287 Thais and 300 whose race could not be established.

Disease risk

The World Health Organization (WHO) said death rates are likely to rise due to communicable diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever "unless priority attention is given to prevention through quality of water and sanitation." WHO is not reporting any disease outbreaks as yet but says, "Outbreaks of these diseases could occur at any moment."

The UN health agency says millions of people are now under serious threat of disease outbreaks as a result of damaged water and sanitation systems, sea water contamination, and the congested and crowded conditions of the displaced, which number some five million people.

The WHO is focusing on health assessments, and is mobilizing emergency health kits to cover the essential medical needs of two million people for three months.

To address urgent environmental concerns that threaten human health, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has mobilized $1 million to respond to the immediate needs identified by the region's governments. "We are sending experts to work with the governments and the United Nations country teams," said UNEP head Klaus Toepfer.

"While the focus is to save lives and fight diseases, it is also important to address underlying risks, such as solid and liquid waste, industrial chemicals, sewage treatment and the salinization of drinking water," Toepfer said. "The damage to ports and industrial infrastructure may be severe, with untold risks to human health. Likewise, revitalizing local communities and their livelihoods will require rehabilitating and protecting vital natural ecosystems, in particular mangrove forests and coral reefs," he said.

US response On his way to visit several nations in the Indian Ocean shattered by the earthquake and giant waves, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stressed America's determination to do all it can in the relief efforts.

Traveling with Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who last year piloted his state through an unprecedented four hurricanes in six weeks, Powell will visit Bangkok and Phuket, Thailand. The American group will head to Jakarta, Indonesia, then to the separatist province of Aceh, closest to the epicenter of the quake.

On January 6, the Americans will participate in an international conference in Jakarta sponsored by the Association of Souteast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to raise donations for the relief and recovery effort. They intend to stop in Sri Lanka on the return leg of their journey.

In television interviews Sunday, Powell rejected suggestions that the United States, which has now pledged US$350 million for relief, reacted too slowly to the disaster. Powell said the United States was responsive from the beginning and increased its involvement "as we got our assessments in and as the magnitude of this really hit us."

Part of the $350 million will go directly to nongovernmental and private organizations that are providing services, or for the purchase of relief supplies. And part of the U.S. money will go to agencies of the United Nations, he said.

Emergency appeal

In a news conference in New York with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on December 31, Powell said past differences between the United States and the United Nations have been put aside in the face of this enormous tragedy. "This is not the time for squabbles," said Powell. "This is a time for all of us to work together to help people who are in desperate need."

Secretary General Annan said, "The UN needs the U.S. and the U.S. needs the UN, and we have to work together."

Annan will attend the ASEAN sponsored international conference in Jakarta to launch an appeal for emergency funds for the massive relief effort the UN is helping to coordinate in the aftermath of the disaster. The UN has planned its own pledging conference in New York also on January 6, in concert with the ASEAN fundraising effort.

While in the region, Annan is expected to visit some of the most affected areas, including Aceh. "This is the largest disaster we have had to deal with," Annan told ABC television Sunday. He said that it will take "five to 10 years to complete the recovery effort."

UNICEF is seeking $81 million to support urgent humanitarian aid for the estimated 1.5 million affected children in South Asia. The initial appeal is part of the larger UN appeal to be issued this week.

With 40 countries offering support for the victims of the tsunami disaster, over $2 billion in pledges has already been recorded for the emergency and recovery phase, more than all of the pledges to all humanitarian appeals in 2004 combined, says a senior United Nations relief official.

Japanese pledge

Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York on Sunday, "The world is really coming together here in a way we probably have never seen before."

Egeland estimated that the casualties would mount to more than 150,000 dead, but he said it will never be known how many people were washed out to sea and will never be found. As a result of the disaster, he said, millions of people have lost their "near and dear" ones.

The international compassion had never ever been like this, Egeland said, noting that Japan's generous pledge of $500 million is the biggest so far.

Indian tsunami survivors in Tamil Nadu search the waves for human remains and material possessions. The World Bank announced Thursday that it will provide US$250 million as its initial contribution for emergency reconstruction in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami disaster. This amount will cover the next six months while further financing for longer term reconstruction needs is identified.

Online donations The Asian Development Bank announced that up to $325 million will be made immediately available in response to requests from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives to help finance priority reconstruction and rehabilitation work. "This is an unprecedented disaster and we are moving quickly to assist these countries in their hour of need," said bank President Tadao Chino.

The United Kingdom has offered US$95 million, Sweden has pledged US$75 million, Spain will provide US$68 million, China has offered US$ 60 million, Frances has come forward with US$57 million, Australia is giving US$46.7 million, and Canada has offered US$34 million.

Private companies have also been helpful. The online bookseller has collected US$12.6 million in donations from some 157,240 of its customers. The donations will go to the American Red Cross for earthquake and tsunami victims.

Egeland said that the United Nations is now coordinating efforts with hundreds of relief organizations including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), in addition to the half dozen big UN humanitarian agencies that are involved in relief efforts.

Concrete assistance

Highlighting some of the most urgent needs of the relief effort, Egeland repeated his plea for concrete assistance, such as helicopter carriers for use outside the coasts to prevent clogging the inland airstrips, and five air traffic control units to assist in making small, damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world.

Egeland said that overall, assistance is becoming increasingly effective in all of the countries and logistical bottlenecks are being sorted out. Commending the governments for their efforts to facilitate international assistance, he pointed out that such measures as waiving customs and removing all the other bureaucratic obstacles that might exist for normal transactions had helped to move the aid straight to those in need.

In food assistance alone, Egeland noted, it will be necessary to provide aid to an estimated 1.8 million people in the affected countries, and that number continues to rise.

Within about three days, he said, it will be possible to reach the 700,000 in need of food assistance in Sri Lanka, but it will take much longer to reach the one million people he believes will need food assistance in Indonesia.

Sri Lanka's cricketing legend, Muttiah Muralitharan, who is also the World Food Programme's (WFP) celebrity partner, accompanied a WFP food convoy to the north of the island over the weekend.

Muralitharan, known as Murali, narrowly escaped the tsunami as he left the southern city of Galle where he had been meeting fans and signing autographs just 20 minutes before the waves hit. Eager to help WFP, Murali organized the hire and loading of five trucks of food in Colombo, said Selvi Satchithnandam, a WFP program officer in Sri Lanka who also made the journey north.

"One woman, Annamma, 45, told me in a hoarse voice - because she had been crying incessantly - that she had lost her husband and three children. Each woman I spoke to could not speak for long before breaking down," said Satchithnandam.

Egeland said there are now 58 groups operating in Banda Aceh, the epicentre of the catastrophe, and other communities on the northern Sumatra coast and in Aceh.

One of those groups is the IFRC, working in the most vulnerable communities on the west coast of Aceh between Tapaktuang and Meulaboh. A Japanese Red Cross team specializing in emergency health care arrived by helicopter in the town of Meulobah on Saturday. At least 10,000 lives were lost in the town and many thousands of people have been displaced.

The team has begun distributing bandages, dressing materials and painkillers to those most in need. Equipment arriving in the coming hours from Medan airport will allow the team to provide immediate basic health care for up to 30,000 people. They have been joined by a Spanish Red Cross water and sanitation team which is putting in place equipment to provide clean water for up to 40,000 people.

The teams are among the first western aid workers to reach the devastated town, where access is now by helicopter only. Few roads across the disaster stricken region are open and the main airports are congested with planes loaded with relief items, making access difficult.

According to Red Cross health specialist Caroline Dunn, the humanitarian needs in Meulaboh are massive. "Many of the bodies buried under collapsed buildings are now starting to get to an advanced stage of decomposition," she said. "Survivors have nothing. Shelter, food, clean water and medicine are all lacking."

From their position at Iskandaremuda Military Hospital in Banda Aceh, the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA) says the capital city of Aceh province is "extremely short of gasoline, water, and foods."

UNICEF's Media Coordinator of Emergency Operations, Gordon Weiss, is in Aceh. "The once emerald-green rice paddy-fields of Aceh have become graveyards for thousands of people," he writes on the UNICEF website. "Bloated, blackened bodies rise above the water and line the narrow roads. Corpses seem to be everywhere - wedged in piles of wood, between sheets of corrugated iron, and under snapped palm trees."

In the village of Pengungi, Weiss says the UNICEF group are the first international aid workers the villagers have encountered. Of the 6,000 people in the area, about 1,000 were killed. A third of the victims were children; another third, women.

"The children, traumatized by their experience, cling to their parents as we talk. The adults tell us that scabies has broken out, that the children are suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory infections. Of the 15 schools in this small cluster of villages, 13 have been destroyed. Many of the teachers have been killed."

Early warning

"Every few hours, aftershocks shake the ground here," writes Weiss. "The stench of death lingers in the air. Half of the city of Banda Aceh has been inundated and smashed. The figures for the dead rise each hour. Relief efforts are hampered by poor roads and destroyed infrastructure." To help relieve such suffering, the international Christian relief and development organization World Vision has set a $50 million goal to help the victims of the South Asia disaster, the largest single commitment in the organization's 54 year history.

"This is the greatest human emergency of our time," says World Vision International President Dean Hirsch, who leaves today to survey damage and direct World Vision's short and long term responses.

Keeping such a disaster from ever happening again is the concern of several governments in the region. The most affected countries had no formal tsunami warning system in place, so coastal communities had no advance notice of the wall of water that was about to smash their lives to pieces.

They have stressed to UNEP the importance of developing effective early-warning systems.

This issue will be high on the agenda of the International Meeting on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, scheduled to take place in Mauritius from 10 to 14 January 10 through 14 and at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction set for Kobe, Japan, from January 18 to 22.

Source: © Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission.

A month after the disaster the death toll had risen to 281,000, with 228,000 dead or missing in Indonesia alone. Estimates continued to put the homeless at 5 million. The United Nations said it had received between US$3-4 billion. The top five official donors by mid-January were Germany ($1.1 billion, IMF $1 billion, Australia $907 millon, EU $628 million, and US $550 million. It remains to be seen how big a gap will remain between money pledged and money actually received.-