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World Struggles to Bring Aid to Tsunami Survivors

Rich Bowden, Worldpress.org contributing editor, Sydney, Australia, January 3, 2005

An Australian soldier (left) organizes a line of Acehnese to make sure clean water is distributed smoothly in downtown Banda Aceh, January 3, 2005. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP-Getty Images)

A week after an earthquake off the north-western Indonesian province of Aceh triggered the tsunami which resulted in the world’s largest ever humanitarian disaster, the logistics of delivering aid and healthcare to the victims of the catastrophe in the province left without food, clothing, clean water and shelter has come under scrutiny.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned that the region could take up to a decade to recover from the disaster and is expected to tour Aceh later this week when he meets with Indonesian leaders and aid agency representatives in an attempt to bolster and coordinate relief efforts in the region.

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC network’s “This Week” program, Annan described the catastrophe as “the largest disaster we have had to deal with” and portrayed the amount of money raised as “one of the most generous responses that I have seen, or we have seen in a long time.”

Earlier, talking to reporters after emerging from a meeting with United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, Annan admitted, “We’re going to need major logistical support – airplanes, helicopters and air controllers – to assist us move the produce and the goods as quickly as possible so that we don’t have bottlenecks.”

Annan’s meeting with Powell had been called to discuss solutions to the logistical problems in delivering aid. The United States government, reacting to early criticism of its aid efforts from aid agencies, has increased its relief contribution to $350 million and has eased the situation in Aceh – the area worst hit by the tsunami – by sending the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to distribute vital supplies. Helicopters from the carrier are able to bypass devastated roads and an unusable airstrip to deliver aid directly to survivors in the strife-torn province.

However, the very magnitude of the tragedy in Aceh is such that not all survivors have received basic emergency aid. Following a mission to drop relief supplies, American Capt. Larry Burt said he saw “people standing there waving flags trying to signal us. There are so many, you just can’t stop for all of them.”

Michael Elmquist, the coordinator of the United Nations’ aid effort in Indonesia, admitted, “I can’t exclude the possibility that there are places that will not receive assistance for a couple of weeks.”

Indonesian authorities have ended attempts to count the dead in the region after reaching a figure of 80,000. The giant tsunami washed out roads in and around the devastated capital of Banda Aceh and has made use of the airstrips impossible.

With a separatist conflict being fought in the oil-rich region of 4.2 million people, access for press and aid workers was initially restricted. However, with separatists agreeing to a cease-fire in response to the tragedy, Indonesian authorities have now allowed some freedom of movement within Aceh and diverted some military resources previously engaged in combating rebels to assist in the relief effort.

Disease now remains the survivors’ main enemy and preventing contamination the main aim of health organizations. Speaking on the Australian ABC program “7.30 Report,” Dr David Nabarro, head of crisis operations for the World Health Organization outlined the crisis and described the urgent steps aid agencies need to take to prevent major epidemics among survivors:

“In humanitarian crises, really, the most important first need is for people to be able to access about 20 to 30 liters per day of water that is not contaminated with fecal material. If they are able to do so, then there is a reasonable chance that they will be able to avoid getting diarrheal disease. … Our job, as health professionals, is to control this with proper rehydration and medical treatment, to ensure that the diarrhea outbreaks remain isolated and are kept under control. What we fear always in these situations is a widespread epidemic of a major infectious diarrheal disease like cholera, but thus far, mercifully, we’ve got no signs of that.”

The immensity of the task to obtain relief supplies for the many survivors in all the ravaged countries is daunting for aid agencies and communities alike. However, buoyed by an unprecedented appeal for funds, aid is beginning to trickle through and United Nations officials are cautiously optimistic that the number of deaths through disease can be minimized.

Despite an initial slowness to react, the wealthier countries have pledged over $2 billion in relief funds, more than all other humanitarian appeals in 2004 according to Jan Egeland, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator.

Egeland, who caused an initial storm of controversy by calling rich Western countries “stingy” in their initial offers of aid for tsunami-ravaged countries, later praised the international community’s generosity in a press conference, “The world is really coming together here in a way we probably have never seen before.” Egeland’s straight talking galvanized Western countries into pledging record amounts but not without ruffling a few feathers in the Bush administration.

In an interview on CNN, Powell dismissed Egeland’s criticism of the West’s slowness to react to the crisis, and described the United States’ commitment to helping the survivors of the disaster: “Our Department of Defense is spending tens of millions of dollars more as we dispatched two carrier groups, a regular big aircraft carrier group and a Marine amphibious group to the region.”

Japan heads the list of donor countries with $500 million.

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