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UN Priority: ng Aid To Unreached Tsunami Victims

UN's Top Priority Remains Getting Aid To Tsunami Victims It Has Not Yet Reached

Nearly two weeks after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, the United Nations relief operation has not yet reached all areas and the number one priority remains getting assistance to people in need, above all in Indonesia which is "the heart of the crisis," a top emergency official said today.

"There are still many areas that we have not been able to get people to, many areas are still, particularly on the western coast of Sumatra, unreachable by land," Kevin M. Kennedy, the Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news briefing in New York of the Indonesian provinces that officials have dubbed the disaster's "ground zero."

He said that in the coming days the relief operations would be calling on international military assistance to help repair key infrastructure, such as bridges, culverts and roads, to allow delivery of food and assistance in Sumatra and Aceh province.

Mr. Kennedy noted that while helicopters now being used are "absolutely critical" to the operation, they are an expensive way to bring in aid. A Black Hawk helicopter carries about a half ton of food. "Now that's extremely important because it may prevent people from losing their lives…but what we will need are roads that we can drive 20-ton and 10-ton trucks down at a much lower cost and deliver much more assistance," he said.

But he added that "rather substantial progress" is being made in the overall efforts to bring literally life-saving supplies to the survivors of the tsunami which is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people in a dozen countries, injured 500,000 others and left up to 5 million more lacking basic services, many of them in emergency camps.

Without clean water, antibiotics and other basic supplies, survivors face the prospect of deadly diarrhoeal and other diseases that, in a worst case scenario, could kill as many or more people than the actual tsunami itself.

Mr. Kennedy noted that in Sri Lanka, one of the worst-hit areas with at least 750,000 people affected, the relief operation will, by this weekend, probably have reached every person in need with at least initial food assistance and non-food items, "which is, I think a very significant achievement."

Food is already on hand to assist all the estimated 50,000 beneficiaries in the Maldives, and efforts are underway to distribute food in Somalia where operations are complicated by geography and security concerns.

But, he said the biggest challenges remain Sumatra and Aceh, noting that in some areas there the giant waves penetrated up to five kilometres inland.

Even here, however, he noted "a couple of key developments," including the opening of an air bridge from Subang in Malaysia to Medan in Sumatra and Aceh. This allows the entry into the region of wide-bodied aircraft with large quantities of relief supplies such as water treatment facilities, generators and fuelling systems that can be unloaded in Malaysia and transported onward by smaller planes.

He said the number of international staff on the ground had also increased with about 50 UN international personnel in Banda Aceh alone, along with up to 200 non-governmental organization (NGO) and Red Cross staff, as well as hundreds of national staff.

"We are increasing our deliveries day by day, both food and non-food items," he added. "We remain very concerned about the health situation, respiratory diseases, malaria, treatment for the injured, and we're working with the government and the various militaries to extend our health services."

He also highlighted progress in "putting into place the kind of coordination, arrangements, mechanisms that are required to bring together efficiently and effectively so many different moving parts" from such a multilateral operation that includes 11 military forces, all the governments of the affected countries and the dozens of NGOs, as well as the various UN agencies and the Red Cross.

In related developments, the office of the Global Compact, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's initiative to promote better business practices in human rights, labour and the environment, announced today that private sector organizations around the world had stepped in with unprecedented donations in the form of financial aid, food, medicine and other supplies and services.

Meanwhile, victims of natural disasters will be able to benefit from faster and more effective rescue operations starting tomorrow when the Tampere Convention enters into force, simplifying the use of life-saving telecommunications equipment in the 30 countries that have ratified it.

"From the mobilization of assistance to the logistics chain, which will carry assistance to the intended beneficiaries, reliable telecommunications links are indispensable," Mr. Annan said.

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