United Nations agencies stepped up relief operations today on the Indonesian islands ravaged by Monday night's earthquake, with a dedicated fleet of aircraft and boats delivering emergency aid and evacuating the critically injured. Water purification, food and logistics are among the current priorities.
"It's critical to send aid very quickly to people who were already extremely traumatized by the 26 December tsunami disaster," World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director Mohamed Saleheen said, referring to the catastrophe that two months ago killed more than 200,000 people and left up to 5 million in need of basic services in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.
"These people have received a horrible double shock, and immediate assistance is one of the best things we can do for them," he added.
WFP today sent 300 tons of rice, canned fish, biscuits and vegetable oil aboard a landing craft from Banda Aceh on Sumatra to the island of Nias, which bore the brunt of the quake and where Deputy UN Humanitarian Coordinator Masood Hyder said there were 500 confirmed dead with the number expected to rise.
The agency is also taking a lead role in the creation of an air base in the Sumatran port of Sibolga, where aircraft, including those lent by countries in the region like Singapore and Australia, can fly the swiftest route possible to Nias. The base will host critical fuel storage facilities.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) sent two water treatment plants from Banda Aceh en route for Nias. Emergency officer Eduoard Beigbeder made a rapid assessment of Gunungsitoli, the main town, this afternoon and said emergency medical supplies, plastic sheeting, cooking utensils, food, water and water containers are required.
Some 10 per cent of houses have been destroyed and 20 per cent heavily damaged, mainly cement and brick buildings, according to a UNICEF rapid assessment.
"Our priority now is logistics and continuing assessments to build a more detailed picture of the damage and the needs," Mr. Hyder said of Nias, the neighbouring island of Simeulue and the Sumatran district of Singkil, which were also affected. "We will attempt to land wherever possible."
The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the Indonesian Health Ministry to assess health needs, sending in emergency medical supplies and supporting emergency relief services.
Meanwhile, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said the quake reinforced the need for a comprehensive, durable tsunami early warning system that will provide the accurate real-time information required by national authorities to properly warn and protect their populations.
The latest temblor did not cause a tsunami as happened on 26 December, but UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has been leading efforts since then to extend to the whole world a warning system that now exists only for the volcano- and earthquake-prone Pacific Rim.
Had such a system – relying on a combination of tremor and tidal gauges, fast data transfer, alarm mechanisms and public education in danger zones – existed in the Indian Ocean in December, experts believe scores of thousands of lives might have been saved as people would have been given up to several hours to flee to higher ground before the waves struck.
Under present plans, UN officials hope to have a full-fledged system up and running for Indian Ocean countries by June 2006.