As the United Nations General Assembly held a plenary session in New York today on the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, teams in the field painted a "truly staggering" picture of "enormous devastation" and the "enormous extent of human suffering" in Sumatra, Indonesia, the area the most ravaged by last month's disaster.
"In some areas fatality rates top 75 per cent with 100 per cent of all homes and dwellings destroyed," Kevin M. Kennedy, Director of the Coordination and Response Division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said of the teams who had finally been able to assess the true dimensions of the disaster in the largely inaccessible Aceh province.
In one area "they've lost in excess of 90 per cent of the population. That's 6,500 people out of a pre-tsunami population of about 7,300," he told a news briefing in New York. The survivors are receiving assistance but are "in dire straits," he added. In another area, 24 of the 28 villages were completely destroyed.
The overall death toll from the tsunami, which struck a dozen countries on 26 December, now stands at more than 165,000, 118,000 of them in Indonesia. There are hundreds of thousands still missing there, though much of this could be due to double counting or people in emergency camps who are just missing from their home sites.
But "it could be, at the end of the day we could have another 10,000 or 20,000 deaths in Indonesia," Mr. Kennedy said. "And we could have a lot more than that, too."
Mr. Kennedy said there were some 700,000 uprooted people in 100 sites in Aceh and he praised the work of the Indonesian Government and the UN's non-governmental partners, noting that the vast majority of those needing assistance have now received it.
"We are still seeking out to find isolated pockets of people, which we continue to find on a daily basis, but those numbers are decreasing," he added. "So I think we're reaching the point where we'll be able to say in a few days that we have basically reached everybody with at least an initial distribution assistance."
Of the nearly $1 billion UN flash appeal launched earlier this month, $739 million have already been pledged, of which $199 million are already in the bank, he noted.
The General Assembly's plenary session was set to adopt a resolution calling for the urgent establishment of an early warning system that could save scores of thousands of lives in a similar future disaster and requesting that Secretary-General Kofi Annan explore ways to further strengthen rapid response capacities for immediate humanitarian relief efforts by the international community.
"I have seen mile after mile of desolation, where once vibrant communities have suddenly ceased to exist," Mr. Annan, who visited the region earlier this month, told the session. "I have looked into the eyes of fishermen whose silence expressed their loss as no words could. I have seen families torn asunder, mothers inconsolable, livelihoods gone.
"But I have also seen examples of the best that humanity has to offer," he added. "Governments of the affected countries moved quickly to do their part, with civil society and the private sector joining forces with them. Communities organized themselves spontaneously, reaching out to their neighbours, without waiting to be told what to do."
He noted that the UN mobilized itself early and quickly, thanked "our men and women in the field for the wonderful job they are doing in difficult circumstances," and praised the "unprecedented response worldwide" from the general public and the private sector.
"The generosity and support we have seen over the past few weeks have set a new standard for our global community," he declared. "It is my hope that we will find a way of capturing this moment, nurturing this spirit, and bringing it to bear in other crises around the world.
"I hope we will unite around it to heal old wounds and long-running conflicts. I hope we will seize it as an opportunity and a reminder to address other emergencies. I hope we will hold to it as a measure of our humanity," he concluded.
Video of press briefing [13mins]