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UN launches initial tsunami appeal, seeks early warning system within year

29 December 2004, UN News Center - On day three of the massive United Nations relief effort after the devastating Asian tsunami, senior officials today issued an immediate call for $130 million ahead of a much vaster appeal next week, stressed that coordination was now vital to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and set a 12-month deadline to install an early warning system to prevent a repeat disaster.

"We are saving lives, thousands of lives every day," Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a news briefing in New York, praising the generous donor response so far to the disaster, in which some 80,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands injured after an undersea earthquake on Sunday off Sumatra, Indonesia, sent the giant waves crashing into nearly a dozen countries.

"Coordination is now vital. It is one of the biggest relief operations ever," he said of the effort to bring in medicines, shelter, sanitation and water purification equipment to forestall deadly diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections among the millions of survivors threatened by contaminated water sources.

The present relief operation is expected to surpass that launched after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998, when the $155 million flash appeal for relief for the first six months was followed by a "mammoth" longer-term reconstruction effort undertaken by the UN and the World Bank.

"I think this will be bigger and as such it is unprecedented," Mr. Egeland said, noting the enormous distances covered by the devastated zones, stretching from villages that were wiped out in Somalia to all those displaced in Sri Lanka to the "growing number we are now aware of" in Indonesia. "Indeed we are stretched to the limit."

According to figures released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) the two largest UN flash appeals to date have been $1.6 billion for Iraq following last year's war and $350 million for the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a year ago.

Mr. Egeland said overall donations pledged so far included some $220 million in cash and an equal amount in kind, some of which would help cover the $130 million emergency call he issued today. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to launch the much vaster flash appeal for the next six months on 6 January.

Asked at the same briefing about dire warnings that there could be as many dead from disease following the disaster as those caused directly by the tsunami, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Margareta Wahlström stressed that the first priority was clean water. "Hopefully it will not be that dramatic but the risk is there if the system is not able to access the areas," she said. Ms. Walhstrom is to leave New York tonight for an on-the-spot assessment of the devastated zones.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that without immediate wide-scale action to provide safe water, millions of people will be at grave risk of water-borne disease. "Standing water can be just as deadly as moving water," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said. Children, who make up at least one-third of the overall population in the worst-affected countries, are particularly vulnerable to such diseases.

"Hundreds of thousands of children who survived the massive waves that destroyed their communities now risk getting seriously ill from something as simple as taking a drink of water," Ms. Bellamy said.

Looking to forestall future tragedies, Sálvano Briceño, Director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (IDSR), a UN initiative for increasing knowledge-sharing in areas of risk management, called for immediate work to install a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean such as already exists in the Pacific. Such a system would allow quick evacuation of threatened areas before a tsunami struck.

"I want to see that every coastal country around South Asia and Southeast Asia has at least a basic but effective tsunami warning system in place by this time next year," he said. "There is no reason why this cannot be done. We have been in contact with UN agencies, technical institutions and governments in the region affected, and find that there is a strong basis of knowledge, technology and collaboration and a real readiness to act."

Mr. Egeland said the issue would be discussed at next month's World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan.

He added that casualty figures were rising by the hour, especially in Sumatra, the closest land to the earthquake, where many areas were still inaccessible. He said the UN was setting up camps for aid workers there.

He noted that assuming a ratio of four injured to each dead person, there were hundreds of thousands of injured. "This has totally swamped and absorbed the local medical facilities which in many instances were destroyed in the first place," he said.

"Still, perhaps the biggest challenge now is the water and the sanitation and the emergency food and the emergency shelter for hundreds of thousands of homeless," he added.

Counting both local and international staff devoted to the relief operations, Mr. Egeland said the UN had thousands working in the affected countries. But he praised the local authorities who had tens of thousands working round the clock to alleviate the suffering.

... Payvand News - 12/30/04 ... --

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