Representatives from 70 countries, both donors and victims of last month's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, met in Geneva to allocate the nearly $1 billion United Nations flash appeal, with top emergency officials pleading with contributors to stand by their pledges while not forgetting the world's other crises.
The conference will determine priority needs for the next six months and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told a news briefing the UN already had concrete commitments today from donors for $717 million out of the $977 million appeal.
"This has never ever happened before that two weeks after a disaster, we have $717 million that we can spend on the immediate emergency relief effort," he said. "I expect from hearing the very generous pledges additionally that we will have 100 per cent coverage of this emergency appeal."
But he stressed that the world needs to agree that it is as terrible to starve in Darfur, Sudan, as it is to starve on the beaches of a tsunami-stricken nation, referring to the Sudanese region where conflict over nearly two years has displaced 1.65 million people in what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Pledges so far for overall tsunami relief are put at between $3 billion and $4 billion for a disaster that has killed 160,000, injured more than a half million people and left up to 5 million lacking basic services in a dozen countries, with hundreds of thousands at risk of deadly epidemics due to lack of clean drinking water, medicines and sanitation.
"There was also a very strong commitment by the conference, not only the affected countries but also the donor countries, to strengthen early warning, preparedness and prevention efforts," Mr. Egeland said. "We can never ever again have this kind of a catastrophe in the world where a dozen countries were taken aback and millions of people were taken aback in this manner. We have to get a system going to avoid a repeat of such a disaster."
The UN is spearheading efforts to set up an early warning system similar to that now existing only for the volcano and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim region. 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.
Noting that today was also the start of the UN's overall 2005 humanitarian appeals, Mr. Egeland called these, if anything, even more important than the one for the tsunami since they involved life-saving assistance to more than 20 million people in disaster-stricken areas around the world.
If it is agreed that human life is worth the same, then there should be the same generosity to all in need, he said. The world has never been richer and it should thus be possible to feed those 20 million people as well.
Returning to another theme that UN officials have been stressing almost since the tsunami disaster occurred on 26 December, Mr. Egeland appealed to donors to deliver all the money they have pledged, aware that this has not been the case in previous disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998, when billions of dollars were pledged but much less actually received.
He said that during dramatic natural disasters, there was a disproportion between generous pledges and actual money delivered to the victims. The UN wants to be held accountable as agencies working on the ground and it wants donors to be held accountable for the promises made, he added.
As for the work on the ground, the UN has still not been able to reach all those affected by the tsunami at so-called ground zero on the western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia due to destroyed roads and bridges over an expanse of hundreds of kilometres, the Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Kevin M. Kennedy, said in a daily update in New York.
The area around Meulaboh, where up to 40,000 people are estimated to have died, is still inaccessible by land, although helicopters have landed there. Indonesia remains the "centre of our attention and our largest concern," he added.
He said cooperation with the Indonesian authorities was excellent and although relief agencies have to request permission to visit some areas this was a "fair request" given the insecurity due to a war with separatists in Aceh province and had in no way affected the ability to move around.
As an example of the scope of the relief operations in Indonesia, which accounts for more than two thirds of the dead, Mr. Kennedy noted that 200 flights a day are now arriving at Banda Aceh airport, which before the disaster only received three daily, while food assistance is now reaching 300,000 people in Sumatra.
As for Sri Lanka, the next-most ravaged nation, aid is now reaching everywhere and "we have a good grip on things," he said.