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Tsunami aid makes extraordinary progress but faces extraordinary problems - UN

4 January 2005 As Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other world leaders headed for Indonesia to launch an emergency appeal for countries devastated by last week's Asian tsunami, the top United Nations relief coordinator said today the emergency operation was making extraordinary progress but also faced extraordinary problems.

"We are making extraordinary progress in reaching the majority of the people affected in the majority of the areas," Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a news briefing on day 10 of the disaster that killed more than 150,000 people - with the number still rising - injured 500,000 more and left up to 5 million lacking basic services.

"We are also experiencing extraordinary obstacles in many, many areas and nowhere do we have bigger problems again than in northern Sumatra and the Aceh region," he added. "We still have logistical bottlenecks although that's part of the extraordinary progress that we have been solving many more of the bottlenecks earlier than we've done in similar disasters before."

Warning that diseases were worsening by the day in areas that the massive relief operation was not reaching, Mr. Egeland said the top priority "on his wish list" were C-17 transport planes to fly in heavy earth moving equipment to increase the capacity of the airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, which registered the worst devastation among the dozen countries hit by the tsunami. Britain has already promised one of the aircraft.

"We still need more trucks, we still need more helicopters, we still need more aircraft, we still need more landing crafts and boats, we still need more base camps with staff support, we need more fuel stores and handling units, we need more water treatment units, we need more generators and deployment kits for personnel. But in all of these areas we are making progress," he declared.

But he added: "I still feel a sense of desperation that a lot of the people on the Sumatra coast we are not reaching." Relief officials have stressed the vital importance of bringing in clean drinking water and sanitation equipment to avoid deadly epidemics that in a worst case scenario could claim as many or more lives than the tsunami itself.

Mr. Egeland said aid pledged so far has topped $2 billion but he emphasized that it must be long-term and that donors must come up with the money they have pledged, which has not always happened in the past.

He also again stressed the vital need for coordinating the operations. "I think that it is now amply proven that if anybody can coordinate the world's generosity it's the United Nations or nobody," he said.

"We are very adamant that everything has to be coordinated. We do not want a thousand organizations to try to send things to Aceh today. It would be a disaster in a disaster."

Meanwhile UN agency heads were touring the area to fine-tune the response to the disaster. Arriving in Indonesia following a two-day tour of flood-ravaged Sri Lanka, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy called for four basic measures to "give this devastated tsunami generation a fighting chance."

These are: a focus on keeping children alive with an emphasis on clean water, adequate sanitation, basic nutrition and routine medical care; caring for separated children, reuniting those who have lost their immediate families with their extended families and communities; ensuring that children are protected from exploitation; and helping children cope with their trauma by getting them back in school as soon as possible.

Earlier estimates put the number of children killed by the tsunami at a third of the total, but yesterday in Sri Lanka Ms. Bellamy said this might be too low since children in relief camps formed too small a proportion of survivors. She also said it was believed that 1.5 million children had in some way been affected by the disaster.

The Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Lee Jong-wook, has already arrived in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where on Thursday Mr. Annan will launch a flash appeal at a global conference on the catastrophe, at the start of a five-day visit to the worst-hit of all the devastated countries as well as to Sri Lanka.

"It is a race against time to act quickly to respond to disease outbreaks," WHO said, stressing the vital need to provide clean drinking water to prevent infectious and water-borne illnesses such as diarrhoeal diseases, dysentery and typhoid.

"Millions of people are now under serious threat of disease outbreaks as a result of damaged water and sanitation systems, sea water contamination and the congested and crowded conditions of the displaced," it warned, although no epidemic outbreaks have been reported so far.

For its part, in what it called an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the UN refugee agency said it is planning a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation in Aceh and Sri Lanka. "This is indeed a very special situation," UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers declared, adding that the agency, whose mandate is to protect, assist and find solutions for refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, had taken the exceptional decision to provide its resources and operational expertise to help natural disaster victims because of the immensity of the crisis.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said it had managed to bring in 380 tons of food and 40,000 litres of water to Aceh, enough for 100,000 people for a week.

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