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.
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."
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.
There is a strange boon from Sri Lanka's 20-year-longcivil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority. Many humanitarian groups and UN agencies already had a presence on the island and were able to respond within 24 hours of the disaster.
"In the north, the UNHCR and the UN in general have managed to identify and get data on 100 percent of people affected by the tsunami," says Bill Barkle who heads the UNHCR in Jaffna district. So far, the UNHCR, which acts as the focal point for other international aid groups and has the largest presence in northern Sri Lanka, has given 218,832 non-food relief items - like blankets, buckets, and towels - in the area.
Conflict has also made even ordinary citizens more prepared for a disaster, particularly in the rebel-held north and eastern areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
"It's very striking here the efficient way in which people organized themselves just hours after the event. They did not have to be told to go to schools and community centers, they just did," says Fred Robarts, the head of the ICRC in the northern Jaffna district. "That's because they have had to go through the drill in different ways during 20 years of war."
Conflict has also guaranteed a large aid presence in Indonesia, as the UNHCR and the ICRC and other relief groups provide services to a region hit by decades of secessionist war. Jakarta has offered a cease-fire during the relief period, a step welcomed by the Aceh rebel forces, known as the GAM. Yet the government has also warned aid groups against venturing into the countryside.
Still, the relief work goes on. Over 4,000 Indonesian military troops in Aceh are involved in humanitarian efforts and coordinating work of other militaries.
Some 1,129 metric tons of rice aid have reached tsunami-affected areas, with 384 tons of that in the worst affected region of Banda Aceh. Six major field hospitals and three floating hospitals are operating, with 2,026 Indonesian volunteer medical workers, and 385 foreign medical workers on call. Sixty-four relief camps are providing shelter for some 394,285 displaced persons, and 25 semipermanent relocation camps are being built and are expected to open in a few weeks.
Schools have officially reopened and government officials say that most schools will be operational by Jan. 26. Yet, the government estimates some 75 percent of the schools on the west coast (89 out of 120 schools) were destroyed during the tsunami. In addition, some 1,300 teachers in Aceh are dead or missing, and the majority of those who survived are homeless.
Private aid groups were among the first to respond. British-based Oxfam has already reached 100,000 people in Banda Aceh with food, water bottles, and other emergency relief supplies. Shaista Aziz, an Oxfam worker, admits to some frustration with the airport bottlenecks.
"Things have gotten better," she says. "But it's just taken time. It's frustrating for aid workers who want to be giving aid to be just waiting around. It's frustrating because we're here to help."
• Nachammai Raman in India, Janaki Kremmer in Sri Lanka, and Eric Unmacht in Indonesia contributed to this report.