With governments and international organizations having increased their combined pledges to help the victims of last Sunday's Asian tsunami to between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned today that the biggest challenge is now overcoming the logistics of distributing aid and relief supplies to the hardest-hit areas.
After meeting at UN Headquarters in New York with United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, Mr. Annan told reporters that while "we're doing very well for the moment" in raising funds, bottlenecks remain in delivering aid, especially in the Indonesian province of Aceh, which is closest to the epicentre of the undersea earthquake that sparked the tsunami and home to the most deaths.
At the same time, more funds will be required in the months to come, said the Secretary-General, who today released a video message urging generous contributions and pointing out that "it is crucial that we sustain our response for the long term because the effects of this tragedy will be felt for a very long time."
Media reports say at least 120,000 people are confirmed dead across the Indian Ocean region following the tsunami and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland said the final death toll could climb beyond 150,000. About 1 million people are homeless and humanitarian agencies estimate that 5 million people need relief.
"We will never ever have the absolute definite figure because there are many nameless fishermen and villagers that have just gone and we have no chance of finding out how many they were," Mr. Egeland said.
Mr. Annan said that he discussed with Mr. Powell how UN humanitarian agencies, Member States and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can better coordinate their relief efforts so that the most aid reaches the maximum number of people as quickly and efficiently as possible.
"We're going to need major logistical support - airplanes, helicopters and air controllers - to assist us move the produce and the goods as quickly as possible so that we don't have bottlenecks," he stated.
Senior UN officials have been meeting daily with staff from NGOs such as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to discuss the coordination of the relief effort. They are also in close contact with the World Bank, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Bank and the governments of the affected nations.
Mr. Egeland said daunting logistical constraints were hampering relief efforts, particularly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In Aceh, for example, many of the roads are gone and many airstrips have been so badly damaged they are unusable.
Responding to a reporter's question, Mr. Powell said the UN was "playing a leadership role" in dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, and the so-called "core group" of nations formed by the US earlier this week to help out had been set up to support the UN as "a coordination mechanism" for countries with links to the region and military or civilian assets that could be easily dispatched.
Mr. Annan and Mr. Powell said they saw one possible positive outcome of the tsunami: the two sides of the civil conflicts in Sri Lanka and Aceh have stopped fighting and started working together to help those in need.
"I hope that collaboration is not going to end with the crisis and that they will be able to build on that and use these new dynamics to resolve their own differences and we will be encouraging that," Mr. Annan said.
The total amount of aid and debt relief promised by countries and international organizations jumped steeply after the US announced today that it would increase its pledge to $350 million. Mr. Egeland said he had "never ever seen such an outpouring of international assistance in any natural disaster ever."
But he added that it was important for the UN "to keep on the donors and keep them to the pledges because many make generous pledges that they do not necessarily honour. Here we have 40 nations pledging. I'm confident that all those who have pledged so far will spend all the money if we are good in getting well organized in the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase."