Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tsunami - three months on 

On December 26, the largest natural disaster in living memory struck South Asia. The waves of tsunami have receded a long time, as has the world's interest, moving back to the Middle East and other more exciting hot-spots. Three months on, it's a good time to revisit the ravaged areas and see what has been happening with the region out of the media spotlight (I hate to be picky, but there is no such thing as "three month anniversary" - the Latin "anno" root in anniversary signifies an elapse of a period of a year).

The toll: Click here for a useful summary of the what's happening in each of the affected countries: the toll, the money received, the aid effort.

The latest figures on death toll stand at 273,000 with almost 110,000 still missing and therefore presumed dead. The exact number and the fate of individuals might never be known: "More than 300,000 people are dead or missing in 11 Indian Ocean countries, but the count is hobbled by confusion, politics and the magnitude of the disaster. Thousands are believed to have been washed out to sea or bulldozed into mass graves." There are at least 24 mass graves in Aceh, and an unknown number of other "unofficial" burial sites.

For the old joke news story "World ends. Women and minorities hardest hit", it seems that sometimes it happens in real life, too, at least according to an Oxfam study, which showed that in villages surveyed a lot more women than men perished in the inundation. "Many women across the region died because they stayed to look for their children and other relatives; men more often than women can swim (and) men more often than women can climb trees," the study explains, also adding that when the disaster struck on Sunday, many men were away from the coast on errands, while women stayed behind in villages.

The aid: Overall, $5.4 billion has been donated or pledged (see the list for breakdown of that figure by country and agency).

As could be expected, stories of wastage, tardiness and inertia abound, and the blame game continues. The recipient countries are complaining that very little of what has been promised has actually been delivered. According to the World Bank, there is currently a shortfall of some $4 billion between money promised and money delivered for reconstruction.

The donor countries, on the other hand, point the finger at the recipients. For example, this from Japan:
"Only a fraction of Japan's 24.6 billion yen in aid to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives has been used to help them recover from the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, according to the Foreign Ministry.

"The aid was handed over on Jan. 19. Since then, only Sri Lanka has dipped into the funds by spending 4.5 million yen to buy nine used trucks to clean septic tanks.

"Officials speculated the funds had not been used because the governments of those countries had limited experience in dealing with an influx of emergency aid following such an unprecedented natural disaster."
In fairness, many recipients want the money for longer-term reconstruction projects, hence the delay is understandable as more thorough planning and preparations take place.

Former Clinton official and now an UN envoy Erskine Bowles defends the aid effort: "I think isolated is the key word. I think anytime you have disaster affecting this many people that you would have some isolated incidents of money not ending up where it was intended to. It's in this intermediate period, in this recovery period as it starts, where you always have the most problems. This should be expected. There will be many glitches, many problems that have to be mitigated."

Women's groups, meanwhile, are claiming that sexual harassment and rape are common in camps for displaced persons.

Indonesia seems unhappy about the aid effort: "A senior Indonesian government minister was reported as warning that the international reconstruction effort promised to the devastated Aceh province was being jeopardised by a lack of coordination and the absence of an agreed plan... The chairman of Indonesia's National Planning Agency, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, called on major donor nations to put more of their aid money through the Indonesian budget instead of keeping their donations separate... Dr Indrawati made her comments in a speech delivered on her behalf in Paris during which she said the desire of donors to plan their own programs quickly was overwhelming the Indonesian government."

Still, Indonesia hasn't been making it any easier on those trying to help: "The Indonesian government originally set a target of 26 March - three months after the Indian Ocean tsunami - for the withdrawal of all foreign aid agencies which are not contributing to long-term reconstruction." While the deadline has been extended by a month, new, tight regulations on aid delivery are about to be introduced by the Indonesian authorities and many agencies are already out, including the UN High Commission for Refugees. Australian army is leaving, too. Many observers suspect that Indonesia's main concern is the very presence of too many foreigners in the separatist province of Aceh rather than any problems with the mechanics of aid delivery.

The politics: Conflicting opinions as to whether the US humanitarian effort has won some hearts and minds across the region:
"This month former US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, after a tour of tsunami-hit countries, said they had seen a 'dramatic' improvement in attitudes towards their country, particularly in Muslim-dominated Indonesia...

" 'I believe the perception of Muslims on America's image has improved, particularly in Aceh,' said Kusnanto Anggoro, a political analyst with the private Centre for Strategic and International Studies...

" 'I don't think people's perception has improved,' said Din Syamsuddin, the secretary general of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, the nation's highest Islamic authority. 'If anything, Indonesians are now more suspicious with America following the recent involvement of a large deployment of US troops in Aceh and their generosity,' he told AFP."
You just can't win, can you? - if you actually manage to work out the logic of the last statement.
"In other Indian Ocean countries hit by the tsunami, Washington's tight focus on Indonesia may represent an opportunity lost elsewhere. Up to 1,500 US Marines were deployed for five weeks to Sri Lanka, where the tsunami killed 31,000 people and left more than one million homeless, but they arrived long after India sent ships, helicopters and engineers.

"Observers say their participation merged with the larger multinational military effort on the island and if anything left many disappointed for their failure to show interest in helping resolve a long-running rebellion by ethnic Tamil Tiger guerrillas."
Can't win, again.

And "in India an almost ebullient pride in the country's refusal of foreign assistance ensured there was little room for the United States to extend its charm offensive."

Silver linings? Two scares that in the end did not eventuate: no outbreaks of disease were reported in the aftermath of the disaster, and India's Centre for Research in Medical Entomology is ruling out any water-borne epidemics in the near future, as the tsunami had an unexpected side effect of washing away mosquito habitats in areas that normally suffer from malaria and Dengue Fever.

Also, the United Nations' World Food Program reports that much feared starvation and malnutrition among the survivors have been prevented.

In Thailand, the coral reef was not as badly damaged as initially feared.

And in India, the tsunami has dug up some submerged and buried ruins of ancient city. Not only a good news for archaeologists but for the local tourism.

The future: In Thailand, the tourist numbers still way down below normal levels, but definitely on the way up. It's good to know that visitors are providing practical help by opening their wallets.

By December next year, the region is expected to be protected by a hi-tech tsunami early warning system.


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