U.N.: Progress, problems with tsunami aid

/ Source: The Associated Press

More than a month after the devastating tsunami, one in eight children in Indonesia’s Aceh province is not getting enough to eat, the threat of disease still stalks relief camps and aid deliveries are inconsistent, two U.N. reports said.

But the overall picture is one of improvement, the world body insisted Friday.

“We know there are needs that are not being met ... (But) we are no longer worried about (whether) anyone is starving. The schools are reopening. That is a sure sign of recovery,” Bo Asplund, the U.N. representative in Indonesia, told The Associated Press in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

The Dec. 26 disaster killed between 145,000 and 178,000 people in 11 countries, most in Aceh, and left tens of thousands more missing and feared dead.

Meanwhile, Aceh rebels and government officials met in Helsinki, Finland, and discussed humanitarian operations in the province and easing tensions to secure the safe delivery of aid to survivors.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels were scheduled to meet later Friday with government representatives on how to use foreign aid for reconstruction.

In Thailand, a two-day conference kicked off to draw up plans to set up a tsunami-warning network, with delegates from dozens of countries debating where to base a regional tsunami warning system and what technology would be needed to make it work.

Aceh's west coast cited
One U.N. report on the camps said conditions are appalling along Aceh’s west coast. Some camps have no latrines, forcing people to defecate in fields or near rivers and ponds where they also bathe.

While Asplund acknowledged those concerns, he said the situation was “well onto the path of recovery.”

“Some coastal communities — small ones — are still needing adequate food. ... Other communities need better water and sanitation,” he said.

The U.N. children’s fund warned that 12.7 percent of children in Banda Aceh suffer malnutrition — which stunts growth, retards mental development and weakens the immune system. UNICEF said that figure was a “critical emergency” requiring immediate intervention, and warned that conditions could be even worse outside the provincial capital.

“It’s a scary finding. Quite honestly, unless we improve water and sanitation in the camps where these children are staying, it’s going to get worse,” said Ali Mokdad, a U.S. researcher who headed a UNICEF survey team.

Jakarta and Acehnese rebels briefly set aside their three-decade conflict in the aftermath of the disaster. But now both sides accuse each other of renewed fighting that threatens to disrupt the international relief effort.

Prior to their Helsinki meeting, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono offered rebels amnesty in exchange for a cease-fire, and wants them to drop independence goals in favor of autonomy.

Moves also were under way in Sri Lanka to ease tension between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government. The two sides planned to discuss guerrilla demands for greater control over relief efforts in areas they control in the north and east.

Warning system meeting
Attention on Friday also turned to averting future disasters.

In Phuket, Thailand, a two-day conference follows a broad endorsement of a tsunami warning system at a U.N. gathering in Japan last week. Several nations, including the United States and Germany, have drawn plans for how to set up the network.

Ministers from around the world and officials from U.N. agencies held closed meetings to assess the monitoring equipment already in place in southern Asia, whether it could be used for tsunami detection and what additional hardware is needed.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra proposed using the Bangkok area-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center as the regional hub for the warning center, citing its nearly 20 years of experience. Until now, the Bangkok facility has worked on mitigating the effects of cyclones, typhoons and floods, but officials there say it could be easily adapted to tsunami warnings.

However, Indonesia argues that its proximity to one of the area’s most active earthquake zones makes it a strong candidate. India contends it has the technological know-how and government institutions to lead the system.

Experts say scores of lives could have been saved if a warning system — like the one that already exists in the Pacific — had been in place in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26.