As ministers from more than 30 countries gathered in Geneva today to determine priorities for the nearly $1 billion United Nations flash appeal for the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, specialized UN agencies in the field are pinpointing areas for immediate action from mobilizing child trauma experts to delivering blankets.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that a team of 36 child psychologists, psychiatrists, paediatricians and nurses has been mobilized to work in the four hardest-hit provinces of Thailand, where large numbers of children have lost parents, relatives and friends, and have witnessed horrific scenes of destruction.
“Providing teachers with practical guidance on how to work with children going through tremendous grief is a critical first step in their recovery,” UNICEF Representative Inese Zalitis said. “Teachers can be equipped as a ‘front line’ of trauma support.”
In Somalia, at the other end of the vast rim of death and destruction spawned by the 26 December tsunami, which killed at least 160,000 people, injured more than a half million others and left up to 5 million lacking basic services in a dozen nations, UNICEF is providing clean drinking water, a vital element in preventing outbreaks of diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera and typhoid which could claim tens of thousands of more lives.
Meanwhile the UN refugee agency, which more commonly tends to people displaced by war, is working with other UN agencies to carry out joint relief work on the previously inaccessible Meulaboh area on the west coast of Sumatra Island, described as the tsunami’s ground zero for the terrible toll in lives and suffering exacted there.
Early today a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team, unable to get access to military flights, chartered a private plane to Banda Aceh, the closest airport to Meulaboh, to bring in 16.5 tons of emergency relief supplies and 3.5 tons of telecommunications equipment, including plastic sheets, tents, blankets, jerry cans and kitchen sets.
“We want to have an integrated response immediately, not bits and pieces coming in here and there,” said Alan Vernon, head of UNHCR’s emergency team in Banda Aceh.
For its part, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is addressing both the short- and long-term aspects of getting food to an estimated 2 million people in need. Overall food availability in the region should be adequate to cover food needs but the damage to infrastructure, in particular roads, and lack of suitable transportation means, will hamper distribution to affected population.
“Relief efforts must ensure that local farmers and fisher folk hit by the tsunamis receive all the assistance needed to cover their food needs and to restart farming and fishing as soon as possible,” FAO said. “With international assistance, agriculture and fisheries should have the potential to recover from this catastrophe.”
And looking at the longer term goal of mitigating the deadly power of any future tsunami or other natural disaster, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is pushing ahead a Global Strategy for the Establishment of a Tsunami Early Warning System, including one for the Indian Ocean.
Such a system now exists only for the volcano and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim region, and it is estimated that tens of thousands of lives might have been saved had a fully functioning system covered the Indian Ocean region, giving coastal populations enough time to reach higher ground before the gigantic waves struck – hours after the initial earthquake in many of the devastated countries.
“One of the many lessons we must learn from the Indian Ocean catastrophe is that tsunami can strike wherever there is a coastline,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said as he headed for Mauritius where he will present the strategy at a UN conference to review progress in reducing the problems of small islands nations.
“Minimizing their impact requires cooperation and collaboration between a range of partners that go beyond the borders of any one State. Any early warning system, to be truly effective, must therefore be global in scope,” he added.
At the same meeting, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is urging special support for small islands, whose fragile economies are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, so that they can survive and integrate more fully into the world economy.
Of all the countries struck by the tsunami, the island nation of Maldives suffered the most severe damage in proportion to its economic size. Some 130 of its nearly 200 inhabited islands were seriously affected, with near-total destruction of the tourism infrastructure on several resort islands and of farming capacities in most indigenous atoll communities, and 12,000 inhabitants remain homeless.
The dramatic setbacks suffered by the Maldives, and other island nations like Grenada in the Caribbean, which were hit by natural disasters in the past year such as hurricanes, “have reinforced UNCTAD’s belief that economic vulnerability should be used as a paramount criterion in the treatment of small island developing States by their development partners,” UNCTAD Officer-in-Charge Carlos Fortin said.