'Chaotic' tsunami aid as death toll rises

The multinational relief effort in parts of Indonesia’s tsunami-hit Aceh province is chaotic, according to an official report seen on Thursday, as the number presumed dead continues to rise.

“The west coast of Aceh continues to receive aid and assistance in a chaotic manner,” says the report by a 34-member inter-agency team including the Indonesian government, the United States military, United Nations agencies and others.

The report cites “the continued absence of a systematic response to the multiple needs of the population” and says the provision of health services lacks coordination and information is fragmented.

Sanitary conditions remain extremely poor in many areas where internally displaced people live, with most sites having no latrines.

However, the report also has some good news on the UN-led relief effort, with cases of malaria, measles and diarrhoea significantly lower than expected, and other signs the massive humanitarian effort is effective.

“Food stocks, though limited in protein and calorie density, are reaching most large population groups via civil authorities and the Indonesian military. Schools are ready to reopen in a few areas and local foods have begun to re-appear in local markets,” says the report, written just before the one-month anniversary of the December 26 disaster.

Indonesia’s health ministry on Thursday raised its number of people dead, and of missing presumed dead, by 2 232 to more than 230 000.

Sri Lanka, India and Thailand were also hard hit when giant waves smashed into 11 Indian Ocean coastlines, with the overall death toll now above 283 000.

The inter-agency report urges better coordination to protect “fragile gains” so far achieved in the relief effort in Aceh.

The top UN official in Indonesia, Bo Asplund, is more upbeat in his assessment, saying coordination is working quite well.

“We’ve come a very long way from when I was here first,” he said in an interview late on Wednesday. “We’re in early recovery already.”

The emergency relief phase is complete in the capital, Banda Aceh, and the west coast town of Meulaboh, he said, with people receiving shelter, food, medicine and water.

“But there are many isolated communities, still small villages on the west coast where people are sort of making makeshift camps in the hills and do not have a lot of access to the services that are provided in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh,” Asplund said.

While the US navy, which flew 34 missions using 11 helicopters on Wednesday, is preparing to scale down its operations, Asplund said he is confident others—such as the Japanese military—will fill the breach.

Japanese military hovercraft carrying medicines and equipment roared into action on Thursday, landing on a beach in Aceh province.

With three naval ships anchored off Sumatra island carrying 950 personnel, it is Japan’s largest overseas military deployment since World War II.

US navy troops helping distribute relief aid for tsunami survivors in Aceh will stay as long as Indonesians want them to, a leading officer said.

“US forces will be here through the relief effort and as long as the Indonesian government needs us to stay,” said Captain Kendall Card, skipper of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, which has more than 5 000 sailors on board.

The international Red Cross and UN Children’s Fund said in Geneva they will wind down fundraising efforts for tsunami victims after a record response, but urged the international community to keep giving to other worthy causes.

About $1,2-billion have been raised by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—the largest sum, by far, the federation has received to date in such a short period.

In Sri Lanka, where almost 31 000 died, forensic experts criticised authorities for hastily burying thousands of tsunami victims without identification.
But they ruled out mass exhumations.

Chief judicial medical officer LBL de Alwis said the speedy disposal of the dead could have serious legal implications and urged authorities to ensure there is no repetition in the event of another calamity.

“The dead were treated very badly ... We were ready with medico-legal teams to help identify the victims but the authorities were more concerned about getting rid of the bodies,” De Alwis told reporters.—Sapa-AFP

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