Relief: massive effort, massive need

Global pledges of aid pass $2 billion, but supply snags keep many survivors waiting.

A week after a massive earthquake and tsunami swept from Indonesia through the Indian Ocean, relief officials are frustrated by the logistical problems that have prevented crucial supplies from arriving quickly to those who needed it most, but they are awed by the amount of money pledged to help the survivors - over $2 billion by 40 nations so far.

In Indonesia's ravaged Aceh province, many residents continue to wait for large-scale international relief to arrive at their towns and villages. Across Southeast Asia, the death toll reached 140,000, with 1.8 million needing food aid, according to the UN.

With the scale of this natural disaster, the efforts are not where relief workers might like them to be, but rather where - or even ahead of - they expect them to be. For example, 20 years ago, according to several experts, it would have taken a minimum of three weeks to get into remote, wrecked regions like the Indonesian province of Aceh. And some liken the size of the operation to the US build-up prior to the invasion of Iraq, which wasn't measured merely in days.

"The search and rescue phase of a relief effort always takes a few days," says Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Then you enter the second phase, keeping people alive and figuring out what they need to survive."

Even as the relief effort in 12 countries affected transitions into that second phase, a third key phase looms down the road: the much longer-term effort to relocate, rebuild, and rehabilitate livelihoods. That can take decades, as the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, illustrates.

Each of these three typical phases is vital to effective relief efforts.

Now, though, aid workers are heartened that key steps of the second phase are moving forward, as workers begin to supply the crucial water, food, shelter, and medical supplies for survivors, especially in the Indonesian province of Aceh, near the epicenter of the earthquake, and Sri Lanka.

Over the weekend, more than 20 US Navy ships arrived in ports across the battered areas of Southeast Asia. American Seahawk helicopters ferried temporary shelters from the ships to the villages near the earthquake's epicenter.

In addition, the United Nations' World Food Program delivered, via two US C-130 cargo planes, 10 tons of rice, high-energy biscuits, and noodles to the same distressed area. And the WFP has delivered 1,171 tons of rice, lentils, and sugar - enough to feed 170,000 people - to the worst-hit areas of Sri Lanka. Students with towering backpacks and workers in slacks and collared shirts arrived in Aceh and Medan to help in the relief - some just coming to help, but others being spurred by the loss of family and friends in the area.

"I'm going to stay one month or two, depending on what they need in Aceh," says Eri Yanto Hasyem, an engineer from Jakarta who flew to Aceh to volunteer after hearing about the disaster and worrying about family living there.

"I slept only one hour Sunday night after it happened, one hour Monday, and maybe three hours on Tuesday," he says. "I sent an [instant message] to my nephew to see about the situation there and got one back that only said, 'Your third sister is lost, your seventh sister is also lost.' "

Relief workers and experts caution that the bottlenecks that have developed because of damaged airports, ports, and roads haven't yet abated.

UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland told reporters on Saturday that although shortages in some supplies remain, the focus needs to be placed on rebuilding the infrastructure so the aid can be delivered.

"We need to make small, damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world," he said.

In addition, he asked for more helicopters, cargo planes, ships, and trucks to ferry the supplies, as well as air-traffic control units, construction of base camps for aid workers, generators, fuel storage units, water-treatment units, and medical supplies.

This second phase could take weeks, if not months, or even years. Humanitarian assistance experts point to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe as an example. That temblor caused the deaths of 6,400 people, injured 15,000 others, and left 400,000 homeless. At the time, Japan was the richest country in the world, and its leaders predicted that all survivors would be placed in permanent housing within 18 months. But six years later, according to one relief expert who visited, several survivors were still living in temporary shelters.

"Our challenge is to ensure the rebuilding effort deals with homes and livelihoods that can cope with these kinds of disasters in the future," says Dr. Walker, who previously served as director of disaster policy at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Two meetings are already in the works to grapple with these issues. On Thursday, an organizational meeting to plan the next stages of relief efforts will be held in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Local government leaders will attend, as well as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who will personally spearhead the effort, and Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush will represent the US.

Moreover, the UN had already scheduled an international conference for relief organizations on disaster reduction to be held in Kobe Jan. 18-22. That will certainly now deal with the next steps in the relief efforts in Southeast Asia.

It is expected, though, that rebuilding roads, ports, airports, and other infrastructure will take months if not years. Wells need to be dredged - to remove both mud and disease. Then, aid organizations will begin to rebuild housing and livelihoods.

"Transportation, communication, everything broke down [in Aceh]," says Mona Laczo, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, who arrived at the airport for Medan, near Banda Aceh, on Saturday. "People are forgetting too that this was a very difficult situation already. Aceh was already one of the poorest regions in the country."

It won't be as difficult for the tourism industry, particularly in Thailand, because it is insured. But for the poor, who mainly live in crowded, poorly built shantytowns near large urban centers, it will be tougher.

It will require a great deal more planning and effort, experts say. They want to establish more disaster-proof areas for them to live and work in, and also focus on an economic model that would provide insurance for their housing and businesses.

Two countries have already undertaken efforts - over decades - to increase their populations' resilience to cyclones and other natural disasters and may serve as good examples.

Bangladesh, for instance, has developed an early-warning system that ensures its population hears of impending cyclones, and it has built more disaster-proof housing. During the 1970s surge of cyclones, some 300,000 Bangladeshis were killed. By the 1990s, that figure was down to 100,000 deaths from natural disasters.

Vietnam's coast is also routinely hit by large numbers of cyclones. In the 1990s, the government began to build more disaster-resilient housing along the coasts, which has greatly reduced the number of casualties from natural disasters.

In any case, relief experts say, this disaster is going to need focused world attention for some time. "We tend to forget what's going on outside the spotlight," says Walker. "That will need the attention of governments and international community for a long time to come."

Eric Unmacht contributed to this story from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and Liz Marlantes from Washington.

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