Press Briefing



Describing the tsunami which struck several Asian countries over the weekend as the worst natural disaster in history, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland this morning appealed to donors to respond generously to relief efforts.

Speaking at a Headquarters press briefing, he said the disaster struck heavily populated areas in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Bangladesh, and inundated large parts of Maldives.  So far, there were 5,700 confirmed deaths in India, 4,900 in Sri Lanka and 4,500 in Indonesia.  However, he noted that Sri Lanka and Indonesia were clearly more affected than India.  There were many communities in Indonesia that were the closest to the epicentre where the number of affected were still unknown.

While the full effects would only be known weeks from now, he said that the United Nations was getting reports from country teams on an hourly basis.  Many areas and communities were still inaccessible.  He had not been able to contact local staff in Sumatra, Aceh and elsewhere.

While he estimated the cost of the devastation would be in the billions of dollars, the costs to the poor societies and communities that had been wiped out could not be fathomed.  Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods were gone, he stated.  Most of them were poor people with very little reserves of any kind.  Also, natural disasters usually affected two or three countries, not eight or nine major coastlines.

On the effects of such a disaster, he said that the first wave of devastation brought tens of thousands of casualties, including those dead, injured and missing.  The second wave of devastation was the after effects, which would affect millions.  One of the most devastating effects would be on water and sanitation.  With drinking water for millions polluted, diseases would surely follow.

An enormous relief effort was on the way, he said.  Experts had already arrived in Sri Lanka and Maldives, which were the first to request assistance, and others were on their way to other affected areas.  The United Nations had country teams in all affected areas, coordinating with national authorities.  Local communities had the capacity to respond and a lot of relief work was already taking place.  The United Nations was responding in every country affected, including the three hardest hit -- Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Meetings had been held today with all the relief agencies in Geneva, the United Nations agencies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and various non-governmental organizations.  He would be having a series of meetings, including one this afternoon with the executive heads of all the relief agencies, within the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), to discuss how to coordinate the response, the best way to appeal for funds and how to engage and assist national authorities.  He would also meet with the representatives of the affected countries in New York.

He was pressing on national authorities to work with the United Nations to help coordinate the response.  It was important that there be one ministry responsible and a clear line of command, as relief started to arrive.  He recalled that exactly one year ago, a similar press conference was held concerning the earthquake in Bam, Iran, which witnessed the biggest outpouring of international relief ever.  This one would surpass that, and it should, he stressed, as it was a much bigger disaster.

He hoped the donor community would respond generously not only to the emergency phase, but also to the reconstruction phase.  It would take years to rebuild some of the affected societies.  Among the lessons learned from Bam was that longer-term reconstruction assistance was more difficult and not of the same quality as the immediate response.

Asked about early warning, Mr. Egeland said that he was not aware of a tsunami warning system.  The problem with tsunamis was that it took just hours or sometimes minutes for a wall of water to hit land.  It would be a massive undertaking to have a full-fledged tsunami warning system in that region.  However, he did note that the region did have an excellent monsoon and hurricane preparedness system.  The worst monsoons, which struck earlier this year, resulted in fewer casualties than before, thanks to the early warning system.

The earthquake that struck the region was one of the four or five biggest earthquakes ever recorded, he noted.  Bigger waves had been recorded, but those had not affected so many people as this one had.  The Bam earthquake, which killed 26,000 people in seconds and made 100,000 or so homeless, was comparable in that it was such a dramatic natural disaster.  The tsunami was bigger in its effect and it would take time to figure out just how many people were affected.  Hurricane Mitch, which hit several countries in Central America a few years ago, was probably the most comparable natural disaster.  The cost of that was estimated by the World Bank to be $5 billion.  He was confident that this would be more.

Appealing for all donor nations to respond generously, he recalled that the Bam earthquake had elicited aid from 52 nations.  Asked if the relief efforts for this disaster would eclipse relief efforts elsewhere, such as in the Sudan, Mr. Egeland said that an unprecedented disaster such as this one should lead to unprecedented assistance from donor countries.  He was afraid for the coming year, noting that some donors were less generous than before.

As for the cause of the disaster, he said that, while climate disasters were on the increase, this tsunami was caused by an earthquake and not climate change.  One could expect a tsunami -- which cannot be prevented -- like this once in every generation, but probably not more often than that.  The earthquake that struck the region over the weekend was the fourth largest in recorded history.  Most tsunamis affected few people as they occurred in the middle of the sea.  This one was badly placed, hitting heavily populated areas.

A correspondent noted that the construction of the housing had been an issue in Bam and wondered if it was also a factor in this disaster.  Mr. Egeland pointed out that poor people lived dangerously without the resources for proper housing.  Cuba loses less people to natural disasters because they now build differently.  Too many of the coastal areas did not have proper, adequate housing.  But it was not clear whether that was an issue in this disaster, as most of the people affected were outside when the disaster struck.

In response to another question, Mr. Egeland said the disaster might impact the upcoming World Conference on Disaster Reduction, to be held in January in Kobe, Japan, where the international community would meet to discuss disaster reduction, early warning and shelters, as well as other ways to prepare for disasters, among other things.  Tsunamis were one subgroup of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, in which all international agencies cooperated.

Asked if Mauritius, the site of an upcoming international conference on small islands, was affected, he said that it was, but not in a disastrous manner.  The fact that one third of Maldives had disappeared under water, he said, showed how vulnerable small islands were.  Maldives was the first to ask for assistance in the hours after the tsunami hit.

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