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Time is of the essence as UN rushes in tsunami aid, both palliative and preventive

12 January 2005 In a multitasking race against time to confront the impact of last month's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, United Nations agencies are moving on numerous fronts, from the palliative to the preventive, from finding injured survivors in need of urgent treatment to saving coral reefs before irreparable damage takes its toll.

"Hunger doesn't wait, disease doesn't wait," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland says, underscoring the urgency - and the need for some on-the-spot improvisation - facing the largest relief operation the world body has ever undertaken for a natural disaster. "We need to be quicker."

With the fate of a million people in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the most-ravaged area in the dozen countries struck by the 26 December tsunami, still being slowly assessed and anecdotal reports putting the death rate in some villages in excess of 50 per cent, treating the injuries and supplying the needs of the survivors is of major concern.

So when a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team was unable to get access to military flights to bring in 16.5 tons of emergency supplies to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh it quickly chartered a private plane for $23,000.

"Survival is still a critical issue and there is a continuing urgent need to find and help people who have been injured," the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report on the Aceh area, where security restrictions stemming from an ongoing war between the Government and separatists has hindered access.

"Treating wounds and other injuries continues to be a major need and an issue of pressing importance. That task has been made more difficult by problems of access and security around Aceh. As a result it is hard to locate injured people who need urgent help," it added.

Just as urgent, if not more so, is the need to rush in clean drinking water to prevent outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera and typhoid which, in a worst case scenario could claim as many lives as the tsunami itself with its toll of 160,000 dead, half a million injured and up to 5 million people in urgent need of basic services.

Other diseases such as measles also find fertile breeding ground in the cramped conditions of emergency shelters. When two children came down with measles in one Aceh camp UN officials quickly oversaw the vaccination of 1,000 others. Other unconfirmed cases are being investigated in the town of Meulaboh and WHO warned that vaccination could be hampered by lack of access to a nationally sourced vaccine, the only one the Government permits.

Looking ahead to other preventive measures, WHO is raising the warning flag over potential mosquito breeding sites, with the consequent threat of malaria and other diseases, from the large expanses of stagnant water and debris scattered around Aceh. At present there are no resources available for setting up vector controls.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is rallying to this effort. Even in Myanmar, one of the nations with the lowest toll of dead and injured from the disaster, it has thousands of mosquito nets ready for distribution to help families contend with the after-effects.

In a totally different field the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is providing equipment to clean up and help to help rehabilitate coral reefs off Thailand's coast, threatened by heavy debris.

"We've seen suitcases, kitchen sinks, deck chairs and hotel backwash sitting on the reefs," UNDP Deputy Resident Representative Hakan Bjorkman said. "This kind of unusual debris calls for special clean-up care.Coral reefs along the Andaman coast are not only a habitat for marine life, essential to the livelihoods of local fishermen, they are also a crucial source of income for the Thai tourism industry."

The agency is providing a vehicle and boat trailer, rubber speed boat, global positioning satellite equipment, diving gear, underwater cameras and underwater lift bags to the Thai Department of Marine Resources to begin immediate work.

And looking further ahead to future prevention, UNDP has provided 190 tons of building material, including bags of cement, steel pipes, hammers and other tools, to the remote Maldives island of Naalaafushi so that all its 291 inhabitants can have a roof over their heads in new houses before the monsoon season begins in June.

Within the next six months, UNDP plans to reconstruct 400 new houses and repair 2,000 housing units in the archipelago, where the tsunami swept away 10 per cent of all houses, leaving more than 12,000 people homeless.

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