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As tsunami relief effort moves into third week, UN operation gathers momentum

10 January 2005 As the death toll from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami reached 160,000, the largest United Nations relief effort ever mounted for a natural disaster moved into overdrive today, zeroing in on hitherto inaccessible areas, opening a new coordination centre and stepping up efforts to protect vulnerable children from exploitation.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, on the relief operation, we're probably at about 7.5 to 8 across the board," the Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Kevin M. Kennedy, told a news briefing in New York as the crisis entered its third week.

He said the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and Sumatra, the worst-ravaged area of the dozen nations struck by the tsunami on 26 December, accounting for more than two thirds of the deaths, remain the "focus of effort, the centre of gravity," with logistics remaining a major challenge due to the broken infrastructure.

"I can't tell you that we've actually reached every spot but we're closing in, if you will, on the spots we've not reached before, particularly on the western coast of Sumatra, with great help from the foreign militaries and utilizing their helicopters," he added. The coast road is being reopened and this will greatly assist relief efforts, he noted.

Earlier today the UN opened a joint Disaster Management Centre (DMC) set up with the Indonesian Government in Jakarta, the capital, calling it "crucial for earmarking available resources" and for ensuring that the Government and UN "are working with the same baseline data on the affected people - who they are and what their needs are."

Throughout the whole Indian Ocean region, from Indonesia in the east to Somalia in the west, the tsunami injured more than a half million people and left up to 5 million lacking basic services, with hundreds of thousands at risk of deadly epidemics due to lack of clean drinking water, medicines and sanitation.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) said there had so far been no reports of epidemic outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases such a cholera and typhoid fever, a major fear in such disasters, but it added that access to safe water and sanitation "remain of critical concern."

In Sri Lanka, where 1 million people have been affected, WHO has provided supplies to help reduce the risk of disease, including water purification tablets, testing kits, and materials to eradicate mosquitoes and reduce the number of flies, especially at relief camps with poor sanitation.

In Indonesia, OCHA reported some cases of diarrhoea, respiratory and skin diseases and noted that many people are suffering from mental trauma. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the injured and sick, it added.

Starting tomorrow, WHO with other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will launch a major six-day health assessment of all affected areas in Sumatra with the help of the United States and other militaries, focusing on immediate health needs as well as on water and sanitation, Mr. Kennedy said.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General Kofi Annan continued his tour of the region after launching a nearly $1 billion UN flash appeal, the largest ever for a natural disaster, in Jakarta last week. Over the weekend he visited Sri Lanka and yesterday began a two-day visit to The Maldives.

"I think the first test will come on the 11th (tomorrow) in Geneva, where we are having a pledging conference," Mr. Annan told a news conference in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when asked if he was confident that pledges of international aid, now estimated at up to $4 billion, would be translated into disbursements. The conference, to be attended by ministers from at least 30 donor and affected countries, will determine priority needs for the next six months as the flash appeal is already covered by pledges.

"I am hopeful, that the billion dollars that we have asked for, we will receive on the 11th," Mr. Annan said. "And of course as I said, we are in this for the longer term and we would hope to be able to keep the donors also engaged for that period. I know there is concern that once the crisis dies down and the cameras go away, the world may forget. It is our responsibility to constantly remind them that the work, the job is not done."

Mr. Kennedy said the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers had offered its services to the UN free of charge to help improve tracking the aid and assist in any credible allegations of fraud, waste or abuse that might arise.

For its part the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) called for immediate measures to protect children in the tsunami zone from exploitation, abuse, and criminal trafficking, warning that "those who would prey upon children in this chaotic environment are already at work."

In New York today UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy and former US President Bill Clinton launched a fund to bring safe drinking water and sanitation systems to children and families affected by the tsunami. "I applaud President Clinton for this extraordinary philanthropic leadership," Ms. Bellamy told a news conference at UNICEF House.

Mr. Clinton hailed "this opportunity to expand the work of my foundation with UNICEF, which has a great record of response to humanitarian crises, especially in the provision of care to children."

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