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Despite snags, huge aid lifts Asia

Three weeks later, a progress report on global tsunami relief.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 2005


Three weeks after the tsunami disaster, aid funds are pouring into the region as the work shifts from initial emergency relief to more long-term reconstruction. The task is as massive as the waves that destroyed much of the Indian Ocean coastal communities, and unlike so many natural disasters, there appears to be plenty of global interest in helping out.

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Jan Egeland, the United Nation's point man for humanitarian affairs, called the outpouring of aid thus far "an extraordinary effort, probably unique in the history of humankind."

Four billion dollars have been pledged thus far from donor nations and development banks. Private donations - from individuals or charity groups - could raise the overall aid figure to $6 billion. Much of the aid is coming in the form of food, medicine, clothing, and the emergency work of soldiers from nine different countries, including 14,000 US servicemen based on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and other hospital ships.

Local people across the region say that this promised aid is coming much too slowly, and is poorly coordinated when it arrives. In some isolated pockets of Indonesia's Aceh province, for instance, absolutely no relief has arrived. In all parts of the region, localized flooding still hampers travel and food distribution; seaports and airports remain disabled, and those that are operational are overloaded with traffic. Even so, there are already signs that life in the tsunami-affected areas is starting to return to normal.

The scale of the disaster continues to boggle the mind. The Dec. 26 tsunami and earthquake has left more than 160,000 dead.

"There's no country or organization in the world that has handled this kind of disaster," says Mans Nyberg, an official with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). "The progress is normal given the situation. And it's improving day by day. The delay is because we've had to survey first, establish an office, and send personnel and support."

India: helping its own

Along India's southern coast, in the state of Tamil Nadu, more than 2,000 Indian Army troops have been busy ferrying food and water to devastated fishing villages, and recovering thousands of bodies. The Indian government has given out $11.3 million to the families of the 5,000 Indians killed in the disaster. An additional $12.5 million has reached 130,000 families who lost their homes.

Bureaucracy have slowed the relief process in some parts of India, a fact that has caused such uproar that some Indian officials have been replaced by more energetic colleagues. Other areas, such as the far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are so difficult to reach that death tolls and damages are still estimates at best.

Yet, from the outset, India refused any foreign relief aid, a controversial decision echoed last week by Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Even so, India will be receiving $7.2 million in reconstruction aid from donor nations and has accepted a long-term development grant from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

In Sri Lanka, for which $92 million in foreign disaster assistance has been earmarked, aid workers say that emergency relief efforts are now beginning to shift full force into rehabilitation and reconstruction. Some tourist hotels, especially those further inland, estimate that they will be able to take customers in as little as two months. Ordinary fishermen, who have no property insurance, will take much longer to recover.