Immediate Response, Long-Term Commitment Needed to Aid Tsunami Victims

Aid workers arriving in Asia's tsunami-struck regions to bring in much-needed food and medical supplies say the needs are even greater than at first thought. According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), up to five million people in the Indian Ocean region lack access to the basic supplies they need to stay alive.

"This is the most serious natural disaster to affect the region for several decades," WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said Thursday. "The health needs of the populations affected are immediate and substantial."

With 60 nations pledging over $220 million (USD) in cash and millions of dollars worth of emergency supplies, the relief effort is already one of the biggest humanitarian exercises in history. In addition, the World Bank announced it would make $250 million (USD) available as an initial contribution for emergency reconstruction.

David Nabarro, the head of Crisis Operations at the World Health Organization, said he was encouraged by the donations. "At the moment, I would say that the response from countries around the world has been extraordinarily generous. And that is a very good starting amount," he told Canada AM from Geneva.

However, Nabarro emphasized, "What matters is the long-term commitment, so that not only are we pledging money for the emergency response or what you call rescue and humanitarian aid, but for the longer term development and recovery." Millions more will certainly be needed to rebuild infractructure systems throughout the destroyed areas.

Relief organizations entering isolated areas are finding towns and villages destroyed, and countless people hunting water and food--many of whom have not eaten since the tsunami hit on Sunday.

Although hundreds of tons of medical supplies have been flown to the region, the United Nations has admitted that only a fraction of the aid has gotten to where it is needed so far.

"It will take maybe 48 to 72 hours more to be able to respond to the tens of thousands of people who would like to have assistance today--or yesterday, rather," UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland acknowledged. "I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead."

Still, in many places, the aid is trickling in. The Red Cross reported that four relief planes arrived in Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo carrying doctors, medicine and a water purification plant from Germany. Also, a fleet of 64 trucks carrying rice, sugar, tents and other essentials have fanned out across Tamil areas. Meanwhile, Indonesia's military said a navy flotilla carrying 175 ton of rice and 100 doctors was on its way to Sumatra's western coast.

"The next few hours and days are critical," said Ben Homan, president of the Phoenix-based Food for the Hungry, "and it is imperative we act quickly to prevent the spread of disease."

"With the decay of bodies and the contamination of water, diseases like malaria and cholera could be as deadly as the tsunami itself," added Homan.

Food for the Hungry reported that it has already been distributing clean water and critically needed items including food, shelter and clothing through its many partners including EFICOR (Evangelical Fellowship of India's Commission on Relief). They are also teaming up with churches in Thailand, Sri Lanka and working with other local organizations to help victims in the countries hit worst.

"Because we work in 46 countries including nations throughout Asia, we are well-positioned to help," said Homan.  "With over 2,000 Food for the Hungry staff worldwide, we are able to assess the situation and respond quickly. Our Thailand team distributed items less than 24 hours after the tsunami and our Korean partners have been distributing items in Sri Lanka through local churches. Because we maximize our impact through networks of local volunteers in grassroots community organizations like churches, we are able to move into disaster situations swiftly and with cultural sensitivity."

David Evans, Vice President of Government and Gift-in-Kind Resources for Food for the Hungry said, "The disaster response effort is significantly more complex than most emergencies due to the huge geographical area that has been hit.  It will take millions more to help these countries rebuild, let alone provide initial relief.”

"We are currently looking at potential U.S. Government resources for longer-term help, including rehabilitation efforts, to "get these people back to square one," Evans added.

According to the latest reports, the Bush administration lent its support Thursday to a European-hosted international conference designed to accelerate pledges of assistance to tsunami victims and added the United Nations to the recently-formed, four-nation coalition organizing humanitarian relief.