UN launches unprecedented multiple effort to aid victims of Asia's devastating tsunami

USG Jan Egeland

27 December 2004 – The United Nations today rushed in more aid to the victims of the devastating tsunami that struck south Asia as it prepared to launch a flash appeal in what relief officials called an unprecedented effort by the world body to forestall the dangers of disease threatening millions of people.

"An enormous relief effort is on its way," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said, as UN Disaster Assessment Coordination (UNDAC) teams fanned out to the stricken countries and local branches of the world body's various agencies began releasing emergency material.

This tsunami "is not the biggest in recorded history, but the effects may be the biggest ever because many more people live in exposed areas than ever before," he told a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, appealing to donor countries to respond generously to what he called a "tremendous emergency."

While "the first wave" of the disaster has already brought tens of thousands of casualties, Mr. Egeland stressed the "second wave" - the after-effects which will affect millions of people. "Drinking water for millions has been polluted," he said. "Disease will be a result of that and also acute respiratory disease always comes in the wake of disasters."

He paid tribute to local relief bodies in the affected nations for their immediate response to the catastrophe, estimated that total costs would be in "the many billions of dollars," and stressed that it was imperative to have a tsunami early warning system established in the Indian Ocean.

Sálvano Briceño, Director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), said the catastrophe showed that Indian Ocean nations are not prepared – as most countries in the Pacific basin are – for alerting their citizens about imminent tsunamis.

“A simple and timely message can go a long way and can mean the difference between life and death, not to mention economic survival or ruin,” he said. Next month the World Conference on Disaster Reduction will be held in Kobe, Japan, will focus on improving early warning systems.

The Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator and Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Yvette Stevens told a news conference in Geneva that that the situation was particularly challenging given that widespread disaster has occurred in several countries. The UN was "used to dealing with disasters in one country," she said. "But I think something like this spread across many countries and islands is unprecedented. We have not had this before."

She added that the UN would launch a flash appeal in the coming days to fund aid to all the affected regions, where media reports put the latest death toll at over 20,000, with more than 10,000 in Sri Lanka alone.

In Sri Lanka, the UN refugee agency opened up its relief stockpiles to deliver immediate emergency assistance to the Indian Ocean island, where thousands were killed, injured or displaced by the catastrophe, while the UN World Food Programme (WFP) took steps to feed some 400,000 people displaced by the catastrophe.

"The magnitude of this disaster is so enormous and shocking that we will do everything we can to join the international community in bringing help as rapidly as possible to the victims of these gigantic waves," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers said. "Our supplies are usually for displaced people, but this is an emergency and the local population needs help right now."

WFP issued an initial call, ahead of the flash appeal, for $1.5 million for the most immediate food needs of hundreds of thousands of victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. The agency has already identified available stockpiles from projects in the region, but urgently needs $500,000 in cash for each country to quickly purchase food as near to the disaster zones as possible, from where it can be rapidly transported.

The number of internally displaced people in Sri Lanka continues to swell, with some 400,000 having taken refuge in public buildings, schools and makeshift camps and WFP is poised to start distributing some 4,000 tons of rice, wheat flour, lentils and sugar - enough to provide an emergency ration to 500,000 people for two weeks.

At an emergency meeting today with the Government and other UN agencies in the country's capital, Colombo, it was decided that UNHCR would concentrate on delivering relief items in the east of the country, where it has offices and access in a region that has been torn by a war with Tamil separatists.

Overall, UNHCR has seven offices in Sri Lanka, where it has worked for nearly two decades helping displaced populations as well as returning refugees.

The agency will provide 18,000 pieces of plastic sheeting, 17,000 plastic mats, rope, and non-food relief packages for 2,000 families, including cooking sets, plastic jerry cans, mosquito nets and clothing.

Stichting Vluchteling, a Dutch non-governmental organization (NGO) that works closely with UNHCR on refugee programmes, today told UNHCR it would cover at least $200,000 of the approximate $280,000 cost of the relief items through its special fund-raising efforts for the disaster victims.

The agency will also assist the UN country team in strengthening the Government's response to the disaster and actively support emergency coordination at the district level.

OCHA has already deployed UNDAC teams to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to work closely with national governments and relief workers in coordinating support from all over the world, and plans are underway to send additional teams to Indonesia and Thailand.

Adding his condolences to those of other UN officials, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States Anwarul K. Chowdhury said the catastrophe “highlights the vulnerability” of such nations to these events.

Mr. Chowdhury, who is Secretary-General of next month’s UN International Meeting on Small Island Developing States, which will be held in Mauritius, urged affluent countries to work together to support small island States as they try to recover from natural disasters such as the tsunami that struck southern Asia and to cope with the effects of climate change.

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