From blankets to satellite phones, UN rushes help to tsunami-stricken Japan

Damage in the Tohoku region of Japan after the tsunami of 11 March. Photo: United States Navy/Dylan McCord

17 March 2011 – From blankets to emergency communications equipment to technological expertise, United Nations agencies are rushing assistance to Japan to help cope with the multi-front disaster caused by last week’s devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant breakdown.

The UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has already sent emergency equipment to areas severely affected by the tsunami, noting that re-establishing communications is a “critical tool” to ensure timely support for victims and rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the immediate aftermath of a disaster in which more than 5,000 people died, nearly 9,000 others are missing, and vast swathes of coast and infrastructure were overwhelmed by massive waves.

Among material already deployed are 78 Thuraya satellite phones equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to facilitate search and rescue efforts, along with 13 Iridium satellite phones and 37 Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network terminals. An additional 30 Inmarsat terminals are ready for dispatch. The equipment can be charged by car batteries and are supplied with solar panels to enable operations during power outages.

“ITU is prepared to help the Government and people of Japan in every way possible in their hour of need and to deal with the colossal tragedy that has overwhelmed the country with unimaginable loss of life and property,” ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said.

On the technology front, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano was on his way to Japan today to see what further help the UN agency that coordinates global nuclear safety can offer for the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where a loss of power to the cooling systems has led to explosions, the release of radiation and the threat of further contamination.

“The situation remains very serious but there’s been no significant worsening since yesterday,” IAEA Special Adviser on Scientific and Technical Affairs, Graham Andrew told a news briefing at agency headquarters in Vienna.

The current situation in reactors one, two and three whose cores have suffered damage appears to be relatively stable but “unit four in particular remains a major safety concern,” he said, noting that no information is available on the level of water in the spent fuel pond and no temperature indication has been received since 14 March when it was 84 degrees Celsius.

The IAEA is now receiving radiation dose measures from 47 Japanese cities. In Tokyo there has been no significant change since yesterday and the measures remain well below danger levels for human health. At some sites within 30 kilometres of Fukushima, the dose rates rose significantly in the last 24 hours, more than doubling in one location.

Before leaving for Japan, Mr. Amano had a further phone conversation with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who pledged all possible support for IAEA efforts.

He also met with Tibor Tóth of Hungary, Executive Secretary of the UN-backed Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization (CTBTO), to discuss access to data it collects from its global monitoring stations that can show the trajectory of any radioactive plume from the plant. These radionuclide stations use air samplers to detect radioactive particles released from nuclear incidents.

CTBTO spokesperson Annika Thunborg said the data has been sent to the body’s 182 Member States and 1,200 scientific institutions. She told the UN News Centre that the monitors pick up the direction of any plume, rather than the amount of radiation.

The IAEA is also in contact with the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which has activated its Environmental Emergency Response mechanism and is monitoring the direction of winds and any potential path.

As to immediate relief for the thousands of survivors who have now spent six freezing nights, many without heating, water or sanitation, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is deploying experts in logistics and supply chain management to help facilitate swift movement of needed supplies. It has already started assisting in the transport of 60,000 blankets to affected areas, where some 23,000 people are estimated to still remain isolated.

“Today WFP stands with Japan, one of the most generous humanitarian nations on earth that has always been there when others have needed help,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said, citing “the epic logistical challenges they face in their heroic rescue efforts.”

As the lead logistics agency for the UN in emergency operations across the globe, WFP has built up decades of experience in delivering food and other relief items in challenging environments, and is relied upon across the world to provide transport for the entire humanitarian community, moving goods and people across huge distances and often in hostile and remote environments.

Meanwhile, a joint contingent comprising a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team and a United States Disaster Assistance Response Team flew from Tokyo on US military helicopters today for an on-site assessment of the stricken areas.

At Oarai, a small town in Ibaraki prefecture, they conducted an aerial survey before landing and securing ground transport to assess tsunami damage within the city. Considerable damage to boats and some shore-front properties was observed, and locals reported fuel and food shortages due to damaged roads into the area, which made it difficult to bring in supplies.

The team then attempted to fly to Sendai, the largest city in the stricken area that was particularly devastated by the tsunami, but bad weather over the mountains prevented the helicopters from proceeding, forcing the team back to Tokyo.


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