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Press Briefing

Press briefing on tsunami disaster on monday, 3 january


Opening the third in a series of weekend briefings today at Headquarters on the United Nations' response to the tsunami disaster, Jan Egeland said that 2004 had ended with a natural disaster at its very worst and 2005 had started with humanity at its very best, hoping the latter would characterize the international response to misery in 2005.

Mr. Egeland, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the Indian Ocean tsunami was so terrible, so explosive and so graphic in its ferocity that it prompted several groups of nations and non-traditional donors to come together like never before. Nepal and Timor-Leste, among some of the poorest countries, had responded with concrete assistance, and even cash. China and India were among the biggest donors. The Gulf countries, notably Qatar, had come forward very early with sizeable grants. Traditional donors were also surpassing themselves in such countries as Sweden, where the Government had given nearly $10 per capita and now the public was doing the same. Probably some 60 nations would contribute relief.

There had been a very sizeable government grant coming very early from the United States, Mr. Egeland continued. That was now being surpassed by private sector efforts. He had appreciated the most recent initiative of President George W. Bush, together with former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, to raise funds in the private sector in the United States, where some of the biggest private corporations had indicated they would use their national and international assets to help in the relief effort. More than anything, he had seen the value of the military and civil defence assets in situations where humanitarian staff was helpless because of the lack of communication. It seemed that whatever he needed was delivered the next day; results were being produced more quickly and more immediate assistance was flowing to those in the greatest need.

In many communities, discussions were under way about how to rebuild livelihoods, he said. Fishermen wanted to help the next fellow and return to fishing. "They don't want us to give them fish to eat. They want their vessel back and to get their communities going", he said. In India, Somalia and Sri Lanka, certainly in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, that was the case, more and more. Still, Sri Lanka was in the midst of an enormous emergency effort, but nowhere were the problems of the magnitude being seen in Sumatra and Aceh. Substantial relief had finally reached Aceh. Efforts now were concentrated along the western coast of northern Sumatra, which was the epicentre of the catastrophe, itself. The coast was low and took the full blast of the tsunami. In some cases, there was no trace of the many villages that had been there.

And, he continued, where once there were roads along the western coast of northern Sumatra, there was now nothing but a mounting death toll. The figures would grow exponentially, with tens of thousands of local deaths likely to be counted there. The town of Meulaboh, previously home to nearly 50,000 people, was perhaps the most devastated, even more so than Banda Aceh. When the helicopters arrived, from the United States and other countries, people emerged from the hills, some two to three kilometres from the coast. Many had tried to escape to the hills, but had not made it. Along that line, he said, pointing to a map, there had been hundreds of smaller villages, housing perhaps as many as 1 to 2 million people.

In recent nights, he said, he had been in contact with many countries, whose help he had sought. The effort now had five or six helicopter carriers, which, by today or tomorrow, would deliver assistance, not only in Indonesia, but also in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The effort from the military partners would have to be longer-term, and their assistance would be absolutely crucial to saving as many lives as possible in the hardest hit area.

To a series of questions about the aid levels, he said he thought that private assistance would match the government aid in the end. He was seeing remarkable contributions flowing from the private sectors of Norway and the United Kingdom, and tens of millions in aid was flowing from the private sector in the United States, where pharmaceutical companies were already pledging in those levels. The United States-based Citigroup Corporation promised to mobilize potentially thousands of its counterparts worldwide. His office was trying to respond to and coordinate the thousands of offers via e-mail from former aid workers and helicopter pilots who wanted to help. He was now not only looking at donations of a single helicopter, but of helicopter carriers, for example.

Mr. Egeland added that several groups of countries were assisting, including from the European Union, whose ministers would meet on 7 January to consider the flash appeal and come up with a sizeable response. The Union was also coordinating its logistical response, with France in the lead. The United Kingdom was also leading certain efforts. For example, he had appealed two days ago for a C-17 special military cargo plane, which could land in Banda Aceh. He had been immediately presented with that. He was asking also for such assets from the United States. Indeed, the United States-led group had been very useful in responding to his 12-point wish list of everything from helicopters to transport planes to air traffic controllers and so forth.

Responding to a question about the earthquake in Iran, which destroyed the ancient city of Bam, he said he had not forgotten the pledges made. People were frustrated because they still lived in temporary shelters, despite the pledges of housing. Those pledges had not been forgotten. It would be useful to have follow-up mechanisms between national governments and the international community. No group of countries and no single country could lead such international efforts, and certainly no agency could do that alone. The United Nations system could do it. He would follow up on those pledges for Iran.

He recalled that seven or eight days after the Bam quake, the casualty figure suddenly doubled, and then that turned out to be exaggerated. In the Indian Ocean tsunami, confirmed deaths were accumulating. He had taken the liberty of saying that the toll would be at least 150,000, and now he was saying that the figure would exceed that. That was big enough for the world to act as it was acting. Preventive measures would be discussed in Japan from 18 to 22 January. Indeed, that topic was to have been a major one for the World Congress on Disaster Prevention; it had now taken on greater importance. Better warning, better housing and better social organization would help. Scientific early warning was excellent, but the question was also how to render societies more resilient.

Regarding the death toll, he said that it would go well above 150,000, but how many tens of thousand more, he did not know. A lot of people had been spread along that very long Sumatra coastline, and most of those small, isolated communities and fishing villages had not yet been visited; that was rainforest land and virgin territory with little or no communication and few roads, and many of those had been washed away along the coastline. In Meulaboh, half of the 50,000 inhabitants were dead. He could only say now that the death toll was "beyond our comprehension".

In terms of pledges, he said that the total from governments and registered aid organizations had exceeded $1.5 billion, plus more than $500 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. So, the total was well above $2 billion, which was earmarked for long-term and reconstruction assistance, as well as for emergency relief. That figure also included efforts by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, along with the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The situation was unique, in that there were now more pledges than what was being asked in the appeal on 6 January. So far, a few tens of millions of dollars had been spent and would not be part of the flash appeal. The Red Cross was also not part of that appeal.

Asked for an update on disease outbreaks, he said that was worrying in all emergency situations, such as in Darfur, Sudan in recent months and in eastern Congo, where 1,000 people were dying daily from preventable disease. There were now many hundreds of camps spread from Somalia to Indonesia, as well as in Sri Lanka and India, housing lots of people. Conditions varied among them, and he had gotten indications of growing mortality among the children, but he had no exact figures at the moment. Enough water and sanitation must reach some 2 million people, especially those along the Sumatra coast. The first day it had been thought that Sri Lanka and the Maldives had been the hardest-hit. Then, everyone thought it was Indonesia, with Banda Aceh as the epicentre. Now, the worst hit was believed to be Meulaboh and other places.

Replying to a question about bottlenecks in the delivery of relief aid, he said there were 20 parallel catastrophes unfolding around the world right now. He was now as afraid for the situation in Darfur as he had been at its peak in the summer. He was desperate to get attention for the "tsunami" -- his expression for the accumulation of preventable deaths -- raging in the Congo every four months, where, over time, there had been millions of preventable deaths. That had been his criticism of the rich world -- could it please wake up to those 20 forgotten emergencies in a way it had so generously done with the enormous Indian Ocean tsunami that had killed more than 150,000 people.

Bottlenecks still existed in terms of getting enough assistance to those places where the tsunami had wiped out the roads and destroyed or damaged the airstrips. A base in Malaysia would now be used in the relief effort, and Singapore just said "yes" with an offer of helicopters and transport planes. He had never before seen that kind of joint civil/military effort.

He explained to a further question that there was supposed to have been a kick-off event for the 2005 consolidated appeal in Geneva on 11 January, which he and the Secretary-General had launched in New York in November. Roughly $2 billion had been sought for all other emergencies, and yes, he was afraid that some of that money, formerly earmarked for Africa, was now being directed to the tsunami victims. He appealed to the rich world, to some 30 to 40 nations, to "foot the bill" for feeding all the children of the world. That would amount to a single day's worth of military spending.

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