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Press Briefing

Press conference on tsunami disaster, sunday, 2 january


"The world is really coming together here in a way we probably have never seen before", Jan Egeland said in the second of three holiday weekend briefings at Headquarters on the United Nations' response to the tsunami disaster, adding that he was more optimistic than he had been yesterday and the day before that the global community would be able to face up to the enormous challenge.

Mr. Egeland, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that, exactly one week ago, he had learned in the first hours on Sunday that a big tsunami had struck the Maldives and Sri Lanka, and that the two societies had requested assistance. It had been unclear, however, just how big that was. It took until the end of the day to see that the Maldives and Sri Lanka had been hit by a large natural disaster, with damage also in Indonesia. Since then, everyone had come to understand just how big the disaster was -- spanning two continents and affecting, first and foremost, northern Sumatra, Aceh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and India, and as far away as Somalia in the west and Thailand in the east.

The helicopters, from the United States and other partners, now ferrying relief to the isolated villages on the Sumatra coast were "worth their weight in gold to us", Mr. Egeland said. There had been very good pledges -- earlier today, another offer had come in from Singapore -- but it took time to convert pledges into assistance. A helicopter, however, could reach communities in no time. Also heartening had been the military assets being offered by governments, who were putting at the relief effort's disposal their air bases in the region, transport planes, and so forth.

He reported that the logistical bottlenecks in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and even in some affected areas beyond Indonesia, were being sorted out. Overall, assistance was becoming increasingly effective in all of the countries, for which he commended the governments. The affected nations had also understood what they must do to facilitate international assistance -- that they needed to waive customs, for example, and all the other bureaucratic obstacles that might exist for normal transactions among countries, to move the aid straight to those in need. The hundreds of relief organizations now involved were looking to the United Nations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for coordination.

The biggest challenge remaining was that 5 million people needed some kind of assistance, and that the assistance needed to be self-contained, he said. By that, he meant that one must come and be fully able to meet their own needs, from transport and lodging to food and shelter.

Emphasizing that it would be necessary to provide food assistance to 1.8 million people in the affected countries, he said that that figure had increased by a couple of hundred thousand since yesterday and could rise still further. Within three days or so, it would be possible to reach the 700,000 in need of food assistance in Sri Lanka, but it would take much longer to reach the 1 million he believed would need such assistance in Indonesia. The challenge in Indonesia was still in a class of its own, but "big progress" was being made. There were now 58 groups operating in Banda Aceh, which was the epicentre of the catastrophe, together with other communities on the northern Sumatra coast and in Aceh.

He said he had just received information that Oxfam was now providing water for 60,000 people there in 14 camps, medical personnel were operating five clinics, and a 20-ton forklift for offloading airplanes had just arrived. Good news came in by the hour. Functioning and effective joint logistics centres had been set up in Rome and elsewhere to coordinate the global effort, and a command and control centre had been set up in Thailand at the U-Tapao military base for civil military coordination. The United States, Australia, Pakistan, Germany, United Kingdom, India, and Singapore were also providing military and civil defence assets. There were also online coordination centres, to which journalists could log on for the latest developments, including bottlenecks and requirements.

He said to a question that more helicopters would be useful; airdrops were the first crude way of distributing foodstuffs, but they were not the way to provide water and sanitation, which was often a bigger requirement than food.

To a further question, he said that 1.7 million people were in need of food aid in the two most affected countries, and the needs in Somalia and in the Maldives amounted to 100,000 more people. In Somalia, some very hard-hit areas were receiving food "as we speak". The needs elsewhere were being taken care of by the national authorities. India, for example, had informed him that it was able to cope for itself. But, the United Nations system was helping local authorities in India, since it was present there.

He said he had a fairly good overview of the total situation and of the total needs. It had been possible to reach out to all of the affected countries, except in Sumatra and Aceh. That was where he was behind, and that was where 90 per cent of the problems existed -- the communities were more remote, the damage was greater, roads were more damaged, and air strips were fewer and more damaged.

Replying to a request for details of the latest pledges, he said those were still coming in, but the total for emergency relief and recovery had exceeded $2 billion. Approximately $1.5 to $1.6 billion was in grant aid from countries for the emergency aid and recovery phase, and that was being increased daily. For example, he had just had a call from the Norwegians, who promised to substantially increase their contribution, and others were coming in as well. Plus, there was the $300 million from the Asian Bank and $250 million from the World Bank.

As to the Secretary-General's plans to visit the region, Mr. Egeland said that Mr. Annan would be in Jakarta on 6 January, where he would launch a flash appeal. He would arrive on 5 January and then travel to Aceh on 7 January. He would also visit other affected societies including, probably, Sri Lanka. The itinerary was still being clarified.

Asked how the relationship between the core group of countries and the United Nations was working out, he said that that had not been a problem in any way, but a great help and blessing for the United Nations. It had been great that the European Union had come as a group and said it would give the United Nations what it needed. It had been great that the core group, which had been initiated by the United States, had assets in the region. Explaining the way that operated, he said he sat on the phone in the middle of the night and was asked what more could be done. He would also be informed of what ships were on their way, what additional monies were being provided, and so forth.

He added that it had been agreed yesterday that he would send a senior coordinator to the base in Bangkok to liaise with the General from the United States, who was leading the United States' effort. The whole arrangement could serve as a model for future assistance in natural disasters. In the world now were hundreds of highly specialized non-governmental organizations, which could go anywhere within days, as well as the excellent United Nations agencies and his own office, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. What he did not have was the "hardware" needed for the effort, or the "lifting, moving and shaking" of the operation. There, the effort required the assets of governments.

In terms of the estimated funds needed for reconstruction, he said that could be in the tens of billions or hundreds of billions of dollars. He did not know. Nor did he know how much would be provided by the countries themselves. The governments would foot the biggest bill, certainly, but the world must come together like never before in helping the poorest to rebuild. On 11 January, he hoped to be able to give some indication of how things were going with the development partners in terms of ensuring a smooth transition.

Regarding the deaths and casualties, he said he could still only say that it would exceed 150,000. It would take time before it would be possible to provide a precise figure of the dead and missing in Sumatra and Aceh, because so many communities were so severely hit. That could take weeks, but he was sure the figure would top 150,000.

On aid figures, he said he would be happy to provide correspondents with the list of donations, adding that it was "amazing". There were 16 single-spaced pages of donations, from the $50,000 from Timor-Leste to the $500 million from Japan. Those contributions were equally welcome and equally important. All were very responsible donors and would give what had been solicited. Some of the monies would be for rebuilding and some would be for the emergency phase. The flash appeal represented the first time ever that an appeal would be lower than the money pledged. The reality he usually confronted was an appeal for $100 million and a global response with maybe $50 or $60 million. Here, the pledges totalled $2 billion; the flash appeal would be for less than that. But, a reconstruction appeal later on would be greater. The flash appeal was for water elements and rebuilding schools and hospitals.

Detailing some of the logistical needs, he stressed that relief goods must arrive with their storage facilities and relief workers had to arrive with their own shelter. Airport and landing facilities were clogging, and infrastructure and transport facilities needed to be established. Fuel was acutely short, but that was now being dealt with. Air bases in Malaysia were being set up. The United Nations would have the primary responsibility for one, and the military partners would take primary responsibility for the other. So, there was "hand-in-glove" coordination. Daily convoys were being set up from the Medan airport some distance from Aceh, but that could be reached by road. Thus, it would be possible to feed the majority of the population in Banda Aceh in the next day or so, but much more time was needed in areas reachable only by helicopter.

Water and sanitation were the greatest needs, he said. It was terrible, especially for the children, if drinking water was infected. There had been a sharp increase in diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, among others, although he had not heard of any cholera outbreaks yet. Without real success in meeting water and sanitation needs, diarrhoea might take as many children's lives as the tsunami itself over the next few weeks, although he added, "we are succeeding more than I had thought a few days ago".

Non-governmental organizations were reporting significant private contributions and fund-raising campaigns, he replied to another question. The outpouring from the general public had been phenomenal. He had just read in Britain that the Government's pledge of $100 million might be matched by the public. In Norway, his own country, the first $17 million from the Government had been less than the Norwegian Red Cross had raised in the first five days of the disaster, and those were just a few examples. All of North America, Europe, Asia and increasingly, Latin America and Africa, were raising funds.

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