The United Nations marked the second anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami today with calls for enhancing early warning systems that can save hundreds of thousands of lives, expressions of regret that the catastrophe failed to unite Sri Lanka’s warring sides in pursuit of peace, and an aid airlift for victims of new flooding.
In a cruel twist of fate UN humanitarian agencies are flying in food and other aid to Indonesia’s Aceh province, the area worst hit by the tsunami two years ago, after widespread flooding over the weekend struck 170,000 people, leaving over 100 dead, several hundreds more missing, and nearly 130,000 displaced.
The head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has taken a leading role in setting up early warning networks, noted that such a regional system now exists to warn authorities in 27 countries of the impending arrival of another killer wave such as that which left more than 200,000 people dead in a dozen nations on 26 December, 2004.
“This means that the future certainly looks safer,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said. “But I must stress that this is no reason for complacency. After all, the technology that makes up the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, is only as good as the commitment of the people using it to make it work over the long-term and for all.”
Experts say that if such a system – based on quake and tidal sensors, fast communications, alarm networks ranging from radio to cell phones and text-messaging, and disaster preparedness training of vulnerable coastal populations – had existed two years ago, it could have saved scores of thousands of lives.
It would have given hundreds of thousands of people several hours between the time the quake spawned the tsunami off the Indonesian island of Sumatra and its landfall in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand to flee to higher ground.
Mr. Matsuura announced a new partnership between UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), which has coordinated planning and implementation of the system, and the global satellite communications leader INMARSAT to provide free satellite links to 50 sea-level sensors in the Indian Ocean, the most advanced real-time sea-level network in the world for such a warning project.
“However, accurate warnings can only be issued safely and surely when all necessary data beamed up from this impressive array of instruments are shared by all at the same time, without delay. This is still not happening, and it remains a major handicap,” he said.
He warned that work remained to be done to ensure that vulnerable communities are prepared for such catastrophes, with the means still lacking in many places to get warnings to coastal populations in time. Public information and education programmes are also needed to teach people how to recognize the signs of an imminent tsunami, as are revised building and development codes to limit physical and economic damage.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan regretted that the solidarity between warring sides that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe did not last in Sri Lanka, where Government and Tamil separatists are engaged in fierce fighting, even as it endured in strife-torn Aceh.
“I am deeply disheartened by this turn of events,” he said in a message. “In Sri Lanka, more than 35,000 lives were lost on the fateful day of the tsunami. More than 67,000 lives – 3,000 in the past year alone – have been lost in over 20 years of conflict.
“No one could have prevented the tsunami’s wave of destruction. But together, we can stem the tide of conflict, which threatens once again to engulf the people of Sri Lanka. I urge all parties in Sri Lanka to cease hostilities immediately, and return to the peace process,” he added.
In Indonesia today, the UN humanitarian coordinator called for an extraordinary meeting of UN agencies, donors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Jakarta, the capital, to aid the victims of Aceh’s latest floods. At the request of the Government, the UN is leading the coordination of relief distribution in partnership with the NGOs.
Yesterday, a UN helicopter brought in 1.5 metric tons of aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), with a further 2.5 metric tons ready on the ground for delivery. In view of limited UN air logistics, several NGOs have expressed support to fund chartering an additional commercial helicopter.
A convoy of 21 WFP trucks loaded with approximately 40 metric tons has left the provincial capital of Banda Aceh for the stricken area. Some roads are still blocked while others are passable only for 4x4 vehicles, and in some cases only for 10-wheel trucks.
Yesterday, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) granted an initial $2 million for relief efforts.
The water level appears to be receding in most affected sub-districts to the 30-60 centimetre level compared to the earlier 1.5-2 metres, according to the latest UN field assessment.