In UN relief effort after Asian tsunami, some details fall below public radar

Devastated homes on the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Photo: UNHCR/B. Barkle

30 December 2004 – From floating mines – the dislodged detritus of long running civil war – to the psychological after-shocks of Asia's devastating tsunami, the massive United Nations relief operation is addressing the mini-crises that may slip below the radar of public attention amid the glare devoted to the immediate health and shelter emergencies.

In Sri Lanka, where a ceasefire is holding between the Government and Tamil separatist forces in the north and east, mines seeded years ago may yet bear deadly fruit, posing a risk to hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes by the giant waves as well as an impediment to relief efforts.

"Mines were floated by the floods and washed out of known mine fields, so now we don't know where they are and the warning signs on mined areas have been swept away or destroyed," UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) official Ted Chaiban said in the capital, Colombo. "The greatest danger to civilians will come when they begin to return to their homes, not knowing where the mines are."

To address the psycho-social needs of children throughout nearly a dozen countries devastated by the tsunami, selective in-service teacher training will be supported to equip teachers with specific methods and activities, UNICEF said.

While limited in their capacity and depth of the response to shock, teachers can still be trained to carryout activities which allow children, many of them orphaned, to share their feelings and to better cope with the aftermath of the disaster. In addition, teams of child counsellors will be trained and sent to schools.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is joining this effort, mobilizing its partners, including professional teachers organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to provide psychological support to traumatized children. It will also seek ways to help displaced children and those left disabled by the disaster to continue their schooling.

Turning its attention to historic sites on its World Heritage List which were hit by the tsunami, among them the Old Town of Galle in Sri Lanka, and Mahabalipuram and the Sun Temple of Koranak in India, UNESCO is sending damage assessment missions to decide on appropriate action.

Beyond the headline-grabbing attention paid to deadly disaster-specific diseases stemming from contaminated water such as cholera, typhoid and respiratory illnesses, there also lurk the endemic regional scourges that may now receive a boost, such as malaria and dengue.

"Standing water and soggy fields created by the tsunamis are perfect for mosquito breeding," UNICEF warned. There is also the threat of measles - the one infectious disease likely to spread in epidemic proportions through densely populated camps of displaced persons.

As to the full scope of the catastrophe, the habitual secrecy of a military junta and the narrower interests of tourist producing countries may serve to mask the true dimensions, the agency noted.

Although outlying islands in Myanmar have been totally devastated, entire fishing fleets are feared lost and coastal communities seriously affected, UNICEF said it was very difficult to get a clear picture of the full extent of the crisis since "the military junta tends to keep quiet about natural disasters."

Meanwhile in neighbouring Thailand, "while the effects on foreign tourists at the resort centres of Phuket have grabbed world headlines, it is the Thai coastal communities which have borne the brunt of the devastation," the agency added.

As for the scale of the disaster the figures range from the small to the almost incomprehensibly vast. In Somalia the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cites figures of 114 dead and over 100 fishing boats missing while in Indonesia, where tens of thousands perished, UNICEF reports that 4.5 million people have been affected by the tsunami and 100,000 houses were lost.

And the UN World Health Organization (WHO) warned today that up to 5 million people in Southeast Asia were without basic services.

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