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UN Officials Tour Countries Hit By Tsunami

UN Officials Tour Countries Hit By Tsunami Disaster

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan flew to South Asia to attend a global conference to coordinate aid for countries devastated by last week’s tsunami, United Nations agency heads toured the area to fine-tune responses to the disaster that killed nearly 150,000 people, injured 500,000 more and left up to 5 million lacking basic services.

Arriving in Indonesia following a two-day tour of flood-ravaged Sri Lanka, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy called for four basic measures to “give this devastated tsunami generation a fighting chance.”

These are: a focus on keeping children alive with an emphasis on clean water, adequate sanitation, basic nutrition, and routine medical care; caring for separated children, reuniting those who have lost their immediate families with their extended families and communities; ensuring that children are protected from exploitation; and helping children cope with their trauma by getting them back in school as soon as possible.

“I’m not satisfied that the global relief effort is focused enough on the more than million children made vulnerable by this calamity,” Ms. Bellamy said. “It’s been a physically, emotionally and logistically challenging week for everyone involved in the response effort, but if anything we need to push ourselves to the next level of urgency.”

Earlier estimates put the number of children killed by the tsunami at a third of the total, but yesterday in Sri Lanka Ms. Bellamy said this might be too low since children in relief camps formed too small a proportion of survivors.

Meanwhile, the Director-General of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), Lee Jong-wook, has arrived in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where on Thursday Mr. Annan will launch a flash appeal at the global conference at the start of a five-day visit to the worst-hit of all the devastated countries as well as to Sri Lanka.

“The most urgent health need now is to prevent outbreaks of infectious disease, and particularly of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoeal diseases, dysentery and typhoid. It is clear that providing clean water to as many as possible of the affected communities is now the most pressing health priority,” WHO said.

“It is a race against time to act quickly to respond to disease outbreaks,” it added, stressing not only the vital need to provide clean drinking water but also tending to the injured, improving sanitation in temporary shelters and ensuring the right assistance reaches the right people.

“Millions of people are now under serious threat of disease outbreaks as a result of damaged water and sanitation systems, sea water contamination and the congested and crowded conditions of the displaced,” it warned, although no epidemic outbreaks have been reported so far.

For its part, in what it called an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the UN refugee agency said it is planning a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation for tsunami victims in the Indonesian province of Aceh and in Sri Lanka.

“This is indeed a very special situation,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers declared. “The dimensions of this disaster are enormous and it makes sense for an operational agency with UNHCR’s experience to be available as part of the United Nations international relief effort. We all have a duty to help.”

He said the agency, whose mandate is to protect, assist and find solutions for refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, had taken the exceptional decision to provide its resources and operational expertise to help natural disaster victims because of the immensity of the crisis.

UNHCR has already begun an airlift to bring 400 tons of emergency aid to 100,000 people in Aceh, the most devastated of all the affected regions. “We face huge logistical challenges in Aceh, where we are starting operations from scratch,” UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva today.

The agency will focus on providing shelter, particularly in the remote and inaccessible regions in the west. “We’re looking at the possibility of using both helicopters and barges to do this,” Mr. Redmond added. “First priority is to get emergency shelter materials and other non-food basics to those living in the open. Next we’ll get them shelter kits so they can begin rebuilding and repairing their homes.”

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