Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Millions of Asian survivors battle for healthcare, clean water

Source: Big News

With deadly diseases now stalking the survivors of the massive South Asian tsunami that has already claimed an estimated 67,000 lives, the United Nations Tuesday turned to the urgent task of providing clean drinking water and health care for millions of people and the longer-term need for an early warning system.

The destruction of water and sanitation systems 'is causing a tremendous humanitarian disaster,' UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told reporters after meeting with ambassadors of the affected countries to coordinate relief operations for the tsunami, which struck nearly a dozen Indian Ocean nations on Sunday.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) warned that deadly diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections can be expected from contaminated water sources, and the ambassadors cited food, medicines, water purification equipment, mosquito nets and even body bags among their priority needs.

“The immediate terror associated with the disaster in southern Asia may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of affected communities where the risk of communicable diseases becomes a real threat,” WHO’s David Nabarro told a press briefing in Geneva, where UN officials scrambled to mobilize contributions to the relief effort at a hastily called meeting at the UN European headquarters.

'We will need very substantive pledges,' Mr. Egeland said of the flash appeal that the UN will launch in the coming days, which may well be the largest ever made. 'I think this is unprecedented because very many countries are involved.'

Tens of millions of dollars have already been pledged, much of it to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and he praised international assistance as immediate and generous, noting that 'there are dozens of airplanes air bound as we speak.'

UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams, including officials from WHO and other agencies, have already rushed to many of the stricken countries, while others are on standby for deployment where needed. WHO is mobilizing funds for local costs and emergency supplies, emergency health kits and other necessities identified during initial assessments.

In an effort to mitigate the effects of similar disasters in the future, UN officials are calling for the installation of an early warning system such as already exists in the Pacific region which is considered more vulnerable to undersea earthquakes like the one which struck on Sunday off of Indonesia's Sumatra island, triggering a string of devastation.

'The United Nations system itself has to come together to address this problem of prevention and mitigation in cases of natural disaster,' Yvette Stevens, Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told a news briefing in Geneva, noting that early warning issues would be discussed at next month's World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan.

'Had a South Asian regional alert system been in place to warn of the impending tidal wave, many thousands of lives could have been saved,' Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Walter Kälin, said.

Sálvano Briceño, Director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (IDSR), a UN initiative for increasing knowledge-sharing in areas of risk management, also stressed the need for an Indian Ocean early warning system like that existing in the Pacific basin. '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.

The International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific (ICG/ITSU), a subsidiary body of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formed in 1968 and currently with 26 member states, seeks to assure that tsunami watches, warning and advisory bulletins are disseminated throughout the Pacific.

Meanwhile other UN agencies continued to pour in more traditional disaster relief. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) released emergency funds is deploying its most experienced technical staff from the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR) as the world body prepared to launch a flash appeal.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is rushing relief assistance to the countries hardest hit and working to meet the urgent needs of hundreds of thousands of people who now need shelter, water, medical supplies and other aid.

With millions of people affected in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives and other countries, UN agencies have been working with governments to assess pressing priorities and provide immediate assistance. Sri Lanka and Indonesia are likely to have the greatest need for humanitarian support, UNICEF said.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) committed up to $1 million and additional staff for rapid health assessments, hygiene needs and health supplies, including water purification tablets. The agency urged that the special needs of women and girls be factored into all short- and medium-term relief planning,

'While the magnitude of this disaster may be unprecedented, we already know from our experience in previous crises - such as last year's earthquake in Bam, Iran, and the hurricanes that struck the Caribbean earlier this year - that women and girls will be hit especially hard,' UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid said.

Among the affected are tens of thousands of pregnant and nursing women, who are especially susceptible to waterborne diseases and may require supplementary feeding, prenatal care and childbirth assistance.