Race against time for largest aid effort ever

The world has pledged about $500 million to help tsunami survivors, relying on lessons from past disasters to expedite relief.

Aid workers in airplanes dropped thousands of packets of noodles to Indonesians stranded in cliff-top villages. Others began to deliver 3,500 lightweight tents that will shelter some 100,000 people in Indonesia's worst-hit province of Aceh, along with 20,000 kitchen sets and 100,000 blankets. Health kits designed to cover the needs of 150,000 people for three months are arriving in Thailand. And 15-liter water containers have been delivered throughout the region.

This massive effort, those in charge admit, is only making a dent in the needs of the 5 million survivors in 12 countries after Sunday's earthquake and subsequent tsunamis. But they are heartened by the outpouring of aid pledged - some $500 million as of Thursday, including a new $250 million pledge by the World Bank.

The challenge now, experts say, is coordinating what is becoming the largest disaster-relief effort ever mounted, reaching from Indonesia to the coast of Africa. The UN and other relief agencies have learned key lessons from cases such as Rwanda where efforts have fallen short. Plans are in place to assess the damage and needs as well as deliver the necessary support faster than would have occurred in the past.

"Given the geographic scale, and that it happened at a time when loads of people were on vacation, I think it's coming together extremely well," says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "That's because we've developed international standards on what people should expect - how much water, food, shelter."

That's not to say it will be easy. Officials at the United Nations, the relief effort's central coordinator, said Thursday that while the effort is gathering momentum, help hasn't yet arrived to many in ravaged areas.

The UN put the death toll above 100,000 Thursday - a number that is still expected to rise. More than 5 million people are homeless; that number is also expected to rise as aid workers make their way to some of the most isolated areas that were struck. In addition to the remoteness, several - such as Indonesia's restive Aceh province, Sri Lanka, and southern Thailand - have been fighting internal rebellions that make it more difficult for aid workers to gain access.

Still, although it may not be fast enough for those waiting for help on the ground, aid experts say the effort is progressing better than most past efforts that neared this size.

"The destruction of infrastructure, [with] massive numbers of people who are homeless and in need of water, goes way beyond what one organization can do," says Michael Delaney, director of humanitarian response for Oxfam, which on Wednesday sent a shipment of water from its warehouses in Britain to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. "That's why it really makes a lot of sense for everybody that the coordination is done well, so that it's not just focused on the easy-to-get-to areas, but it's including those hard-to-get-to areas."

Following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the huge amounts of aid pledged were judged not to have accomplished as much as expected, aid agencies and governments came together to devise better ways to respond to future disasters.

The initiatives resulting from their study included plans for many countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, to have plans in place to move swiftly into action when a major catastrophe occurs. Those countries have disaster coordinating committees that convene immediately and collaborate with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Jan Egeland, the emergency relief coordinator who heads up OCHA, is responsible for organizing all UN agencies in responding to the crisis and establishing one consolidated appeal for funds. That appeal is expected to go out on Jan. 6.

His office also collects all reports from the field assessment teams and shares that information with aid agencies and governments that are cooperating in the relief effort so they can direct their support effectively.

Some countries also coordinate their agencies' efforts. Britain, for example, has a Disaster Emergency Committee that groups together its international relief agencies and coordinates the support they administer. The US announced Wednesday it was partnering with Australia, Japan, and India to coordinate relief efforts.

The website consolidates aid agency information and provides guidance for those interested in helping.

"There has been good communication immediately on what is needed in different areas," says Sean Callahan, vice president for overseas operations for Catholic Relief Services, which has teams in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia. "We were concerned initially, given the Christmas holidays, about getting an international engagement on these issues. But it seems that people have responded rapidly."

The effort will continue for some time. Aid workers say they are in the first of three phases of providing support to those in need. The initial phase includes the emergency response - saving and protecting lives, as well as surveys of damage and needs.

A second phase involves stabilizing the populations - making sure the survivors have potable water, food, and shelter.

Third comes relocating people to secure housing, as well as rehabilitating their livelihoods - helping them become self-sufficient.

"[The relief groups] will get the logistics right, the big numbers right," says Mr. Walker. "But they will need to continually check with people on the ground to be sure that they are providing what the local people need to rebuild their lives, their countries."

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