From: Michael Perry, Reuters
Published December 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Monks, Planes Help Distribute Tsunami Aid

BANGKOK — Buddhist monks gave out rice and curry to grieving tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and aircraft dropped food to isolated Indonesian towns Wednesday as Asia's disaster relief operation struggled to kick in.


International aid teams landed in devastated villages to restore drinking water in a desperate race to prevent the spread of diseases. But in many remote areas, people said aid was nonexistent three days after a giant wave hit seven Asian nations killing more than 77,000.


As the world pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid and sent an international flotilla of ships and aircraft with hundreds of tons of supplies, one of history's biggest relief operations battled with the enormity of the task.


While aid workers have reached most of the stricken areas, "we are doing very little at the moment," U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland acknowledged in New York.


"It will take maybe 48 to 72 hours more to be able to respond to the tens of thousands of people who would like to have assistance today -- or yesterday, rather," he said. "I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead."


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In just three days, some 50 to 60 nations have donated or pledged more than $220 million in cash, about the same amount of in-kind contributions and extensive logistic support, Egeland said, characterising the response as "phenomenal."


U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will launch an emergency appeal next week for hundreds of millions of dollars more in humanitarian aid, to get the region through the next six months, U.N. officials said.


A much larger appeal, in the billions of dollars, would be launched later to help finance reconstruction, they said. Annan was cutting short a vacation to return to U.N. headquarters and help spearhead the drive.


The United Nations estimated 5 million people were in need of desperate help to just survive, with some island survivors living on nothing more than coconuts.


Vaitai Usman, a woman in her mid-30s, gestured angrily at her filthy sarong, saying it was the last of her possessions, as relief teams began arriving in Indonesia's Banda Aceh city.


"There is no food here whatsoever. We need rice. We need petrol. We need medicine. I haven't eaten in two days," she said.


Indonesia sent ships to the coast of Aceh, on the north of Sumatra island near the epicenter of the undersea quake that caused the tsunami, to contact towns still unheard from.


On the south coast of Sri Lanka, with more than 22,000 dead and 1.5 million homeless, people said there was still no sign of government aid where fishing villages have been wiped out.


"There is frighteningly little here," said Chris Weeks, a director of the private Disaster Resource Network, in Colombo. "There seem to be a lot of people who have turned up but not much in the way of tents and blankets and medical equipment."


The World Health Organization said disease could kill as many people as the tsunami.


"Standing water can be just as deadly as moving water" and the delivery of water purification systems was paramount, said UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy.


"We don't know how many people might die in the next days and weeks from disease caused primarily by bad water and sanitation conditions," she said.


UNICEF has delivered 50 water tanks to southern India and a 45-ton shipment of water purification tablets and water systems was due to arrive in Sri Lanka Thursday.


The Red Cross and the WHO said they had set up hundreds of temporary medical and relief camps across Sri Lanka to deliver their own aid, but conditions were overcrowded and ideal for respiratory infections, which can be fatal in children.


"So far we have not seen any diseases, but we expect that in the next two days," said Priyanatch Peiris, head of Sri Lanka's Red Cross medical teams.


German aid workers in Thailand, where the government admits it is struggling with the disaster, said the danger of disease was rising hourly due to overcrowded hospitals, a shortage of shelter and insufficient water supplies.


"Hospitals are overcrowded and local resources wholly insufficient," said German Andre Stulz on the resort island of Phuket where 233 people are known to have died.


Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra admitted "we have too little equipment" as relief workers continued to dig out bodies with their bare hands and store them in Buddhist temples.


Access to coastal villages and resorts, now nothing more than mud-covered rubble blanketed with the stench of decaying corpses, was a major problem with bridges down and roads flooded.


The World Bank estimated 500 miles of railway, a transport lifeline in Sri Lanka, had been destroyed.


"Communication lines remain extremely problematic, and many key logistic routes needed to transport food have been blocked," said Jeff Dick, the U.N. World Food Program director in Sri Lanka.


The WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency, was trucking food supplies to 12 districts in Sri Lanka and sending emergency teams to cut-off coastal regions.


In Indonesia, the worst hit nation with nearly 37,000 known to have died, people at Banda Aceh airport said international aid was starting to trickle as aid planes landed.


But most relief efforts remained focused on retrieving thousands of bodies as aid workers struggled to come to grips with the destruction.


"I have not slept for two days. It is the worst destruction I have ever seen in my years as a doctor," said Somboon Sukhumkhampee at Takuata Hospital near Thailand's Khao Lak beach, where the death toll may reach 3,000.


French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier flew into the nearby Thai resort island of Phuket bringing aid and a team of psychiatrists to help traumatized families.


"There are people here whose families have been amputated, decimated and we have to help these people psychologically," Barnier told reporters.


Source: Reuters


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