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Press Briefing

Press conference on tsunami disaster on saturday, 1 january

Updating correspondents today at Headquarters in the first of three planned weekend briefings on developments in the tsunami disaster, Jan Egeland, wished everybody a Happy New Year and assured them that the United Nations and its colleagues in the Red Cross and Red Crescent system -- the two major coordinators -- were doing their level best on all affected continents.

Mr. Egeland, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said he hoped that 2005 would be a year of real improvements in the humanitarian system, in terms of its coherence, effectiveness and resources. The response to the tsunami victims would help that happen because, not only was it the biggest outpouring of relief ever in such a short period, it was also, he hoped and believed, the best coordinated effort in such a short time frame.

At the moment, he said that $2 billion in pledges was being recorded for the emergency and recovery phase. That was more than all of the pledges to all humanitarian appeals in 2004 combined. So, for the $20 million or so sought in 2004, already more had been pledged in seven days for the Tsunami-affected communities. The international compassion had never ever been like this. More than 40 countries had pledged support. Japan's extremely generous pledge of $500 million, made by the Prime Minister, was the biggest so far. There were also huge pledges from the United States and the World Bank for the recovery and rehabilitation phase, as well as from the Asian Development Bank, the United Kingdom, Sweden, China, the European Union, and many other partners.

He said that the United Nations was coordinating efforts now with hundreds of relief organizations, and not only the half dozen or so big United Nations humanitarian agencies involved. There had been meetings yesterday and there would be another tonight. In a telephone conference at 10 last night with the United States-led "core group", which included also India, Australia, Japan, and the Netherlands, among others, he had repeated his most recent plea, made also to the United Kingdom, Canada, European Union and China, for very concrete assistance in the most needed areas. He repeated that plea now for: helicopter carriers to be used outside the coasts so as not to further clog the airstrips being used inland; five air traffic control units in order to assist in making small, damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world; 100 boats and landing crafts; several hundred trucks for 10 to 15 metric tons of cargo; a number of new C-17 and C-130 cargo airplanes; 10 fully equipped base camps with staff support for the personnel being placed in many locations; fuel storage and handling units; and water treatment units, along with many hundreds, if not thousands, of generators.

Also needed were: full deployment kits for individuals, or everything needed to commence work as a nurse, doctor, communications expert, and so forth; several hundred communications systems; and food and medical relief, he said. The latter items -- food and medicines -- were coming in as part of the $2 billion pledge. Indeed, hundreds if not thousands, of shipments were coming in from many places to the half-dozen countries where big operations were being launched with the local and national authorities. It would be necessary to feed more than 1 million people in Indonesia, alone. Airlifting had begun to Aceh over the last 48 hours, and that would be stepped up further. More than 700,000 people had to be fed in Sri Lanka. The World Food Programme (WFP) had already reached 140,000 and it expected to cover all 700,000 people in Sri Lanka by 6 January.

The hardest-hit places were Sumatra and Aceh, possibly accounting for three fourths of all casualties, he said, adding that he would never have a total casualty figure. His estimate yesterday had been 150,000 dead. Today, he was sure it was higher than that, but it would never be known how many people had been washed to sea and would never be found. There were many nameless fishing vessels, fishermen, and fishing communities. The exact damage and the exact number of casualties would never, ever be known. It was known already, however, that millions of people had lost "near and dear" ones.

Emphasizing that the biggest constraint in the relief effort was logistical, he stressed that the military and civilian defence assets being provided were as valuable as cash or gold because that enabled the assistance to move in the race against the clock. There were already many colleagues in the field, including in the worst-hit locations. The United Nations system, the Red Cross and non-governmental organizations had big and growing numbers in all of those places, but their personnel were saying it would take many days, however, before it would be possible to reach all of the affected places.

Asked to characterize the contributions of the wealthy nations, he said he thought that the United States, the wealthiest, was doing a "phenomenal" job in that unprecedented challenge, not only in terms of its very large cash donation, but also in terms of bringing in civilian and military defence assets, which was precisely what was needed. In six days in that natural disaster, he had gotten as much as what 20 countries combined with phenomenal emergencies had needed with hundreds, if not millions, of lives at stake in 2004. He hoped that, in 2005, that level of international generosity for people dying from natural disasters or conflict would be sustained. For its part, the United States remained the biggest donor of humanitarian relief, for which he was very, very grateful.

Replying to a question about refrigeration for the decomposing bodies, he said that "cold chains", for medicine, medical equipment and bodies, were on his extended wish list. There was not a great health risk emanating from the decomposing bodies, but the belief existed in many communities that those had to be dealt with very quickly. Burying the bodies in haste would leave emotional scars forever. Sewage was the main health risk. Identification of the corpses was a major problem, which compounded the difficulty in getting the numbers right and getting the work moving well.

The list he had read out today was one which he did not usually read after disasters because there were usually still communication lines, roads and airfields in place, whereas this was an "exploding crisis", he explained to another question. Communication had been wiped away with the many people, so he was asking for a new and alternative way to transport a lot of food and equipment by helicopter, which was very expensive and very hard work. That was also not the easiest way to distribute supplies. He had seen graphic images this morning of United States' helicopters going to places for the first time. There were indeed immediate distribution problems. The military of all affected countries would participate in setting up a good distribution system.

He said to a question about having to return to donors repeatedly that it was his full-time job to be the "bad conscience of the world" and he had tried to be that really, including for the new rich countries in Asia, the Gulf and Latin America. He understood that he had to be the advocate; he had to try and hold countries to their pledges, even when the crisis was no longer in the media and when so many other demands were being made of the decision makers. It was wholly human to focus on the biggest crisis of the time, but his job was to remind everyone of their promises. Needs still existed, of course, in Iraq, in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and in Darfur, Sudan, but the people of Aceh and Sumatra would be in deep misery for many, many months, and maybe years, unless the relief efforts kept pace.

In eastern Congo, 1,000 people were dying daily from the effects of the conflict, including from disease, and in Darfur, the effort had retreated in recent days owing to the security situation. Now, some 600,000 people could not be reached. That would have been the big story if not for the Tsunami. Generosity flowed according to need, but should not be only the initial response.

Pressed for more concrete figures in the wake of the Secretary-General's comment that the effort was in a "race against time", he said that some 5 million people were at "severe risk". He believed, however, that with the present effort, it would be possible to cover the vast majority of those people. It would be possible to feed 2 million people, although many more needed water and a sanitation system, and a health infrastructure. Diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases were exploding because those were water-borne. Many partners in the local health field in Indonesia had warned of possible cholera outbreaks. Cholera was a deadly disease, which spread very quickly. So, that was the "race against the clock" and the odds were very high.

In terms of logistical challenges, he had said that Aceh had one long airstrip ready. That had been a conflict zone for a long time and was now a peace zone. Paradoxically, thanks to the tsunami, he was seeing confidence-building in Aceh, Sumatra and Somalia. The airstrip in Bande Aceh was such that, planes both landed and took off from the same strip, meaning that there was very limited capacity. Moreover, that airstrip could only be used in daylight. A site in Malaysia was being considered as a staging ground. A full team needed to be put in place to handle such logistical concerns.

He was pleased that high-profile visits to the affected areas were already taking place. Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State, was going, and the Secretary-General had been invited by the affected countries to come to Jakarta on 6 January, and he was considering that invitation. Several agency colleagues were also going to the area. At the same time, his staff during the height of the Darfur crisis had spent approximately 40 per cent of their time receiving visitors, including ministers and parliamentarians. They should have been able to spend 90 per cent of their waking hours on the effort. That had been a dilemma because he wanted everyone to see the good work being done on the ground, so that their interest was sustained and they would continue to "foot the bill".

Feeding would probably take place for several months, but he pointed out in response to a further question that the coping mechanisms of the societies differed greatly. The biggest feeding operations would not last years, but they would last more than weeks, before societies began to recover. The biggest challenge would be rebuilding the infrastructure, as thousands of schools and health clinics had been destroyed, and many millions of wells had been polluted.

Concerning landmines, he said those weapons were of special concern, especially in Sri Lanka. The good news was that relief staff had access throughout the country and Aceh, for the first time in his memory. The bad news was that, in many of those places the roads and trails, which had been formerly rendered safe, were now unsafe again. So, that was a major challenge, he said.

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