Nearly three weeks after a massive tsunami devastated a dozen Indian Ocean countries, top United Nations officials today said relief operations were going reasonably well, called reports of child exploitation exaggerated, and hammered home the urgent need for an early warning system to save thousands of lives in the future.
"I am happy that my call for a global early warning system has been enthusiastically supported," Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a news briefing in Mauritius, where he attended a meeting on small island developing States at which he proposed such a system not only for tsunamis but for other natural disasters as well.
Such a mechanism, involving seismic posts, speedy communication to designated officials and mass evacuation training for local populations, could have given coastal populations enough time to flee to higher ground before the tsunami struck on 26 December - in many countries hours after the initial earthquake that spawned it - and killed at least 160,000 at latest count.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) plans to have an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system operational by June 2006, expanding it to the whole globe a year later.
Mr. Annan also said he would appoint a special envoy next week to ensure maximum coordination of relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts in the largest UN operation ever mounted for a natural disaster.
UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy, fresh from a tour of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the most ravaged region, said the relief effort is going reasonably well in response to the disaster in which more than half a million people were injured and 5 million, over 1 million of them children, left in need of basic services.
"Indeed I would say in virtually all the countries, apart from Indonesia at this point, not only is the relief effort going well but there are clear signs of the beginning for the recovery effort," she told a news briefing in New York. "But there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. Life is far from good for the 1.2 million people who were displaced."
But in the Indonesian province of Aceh, plagued with a broken infrastructure that is hampering communications in an already virtually inaccessible region, serious emergency problems still remain. "Building a regular supply line of needed goods and services continues to [be] a very logistical, I was going to say a logistical challenge - [but] there are moments when it's a logistical nightmare," Ms. Bellamy said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also reported that Aceh remained the priority for relief work as it continued to be in a state of emergency. After sporadic measles cases were reported, a large-scale vaccination campaign has been launched, targeting 1.16 million children aged 6 months to 15 years.
Ms. Bellamy said reports of child trafficking and exploitation seemed exaggerated but she called for vigilance since the situation could rapidly change. She added governments and communities across the region had responded very well to the potential threat of exploitation and steps to protect children so far seemed to be working.
"In other words, most of the reports at this point of wrongdoing or possible wrongdoing seem not to be substantiated. But we believe in many ways that's because of these preventive measures," she said. "There will be exceptions and the situation can evolve very rapidly but so far we are pleased that the reports of trafficking and other abuses of children seem limited."
She stressed that getting children back to school as quickly as possible was essential for the recovery from the traumatic shock and two UNICEF-supported schools re-opened in Aceh this week. "There is no better way of helping children regain some normalcy than to return to school," she said.
In related developments, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has made 15 satellite earth stations available for emergency deployment to help coordinate the massive relief effort.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), dedicated to eradicating poverty in rural areas, is looking to longer-term rehabilitation. "The goal is not only to help them to recover, but to increase their capacity to cope with future natural disasters by enabling them to overcome the desperate poverty that makes them so vulnerable," it said.
The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is also addressing the medium- and longer-term requirements of economic revival and employment generation, focusing on a number of projects allowing local communities to be largely responsible for their own reconstruction, using locally available resources and manpower.
"The crippling damage to factories and businesses, the almost total destruction of the fisheries industry, the devastating blow dealt to agriculture through salt contamination of the soil and ground waters, and the destruction of roads, bridges and communication networks have meant that millions of people in the region not only lost their homes and worldly goods but also the wherewithal to support their families," the Vienna-based agency said.
Video of press briefing [20mins]