Vol. 5 Num 215 Fri. December 31, 2004  
Front Page

Cry for relief as death toll crosses 120,000

Millions of people on Indian Ocean shores scrambled for food and clean water yesterday, with disease and hunger now the main threats stalking survivors of the most devastating tsunami on record.

The confirmed death toll rose above 120,000 yesterday, as Indonesia uncovered more and more dead from the ravaged Sumatra.

The total toll across 12 nations in southern Asia and East Africa was likely to rise, with thousands still missing and fears that disease could bring a new wave of deaths.

According to World Health Organisation, about 300,000 people are injured, often in areas where hospitals are overwhelmed or have been destroyed.

The true scale of the disaster may not be known for weeks, if ever, as rescuers battle to reach remote areas and grieving survivors search for bodies, while pilots drop food to remote villages still unreachable by rescue workers.

Indonesia yesterday reported nearly 28,000 newly confirmed dead in Sumatra, which being closest to the epicentre of the massive earthquake was overwhelmed by the tsunami.

Some 60 percent of Banda Aceh, the main city in northern Sumatra, was destroyed, the UN children's agency estimated, and 115 miles of the island's northwest coast lined with villages was inundated.

Indonesia, with around 80,000 dead, was the worst hit followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

In Sri Lanka 24,743 were confirmed killed by the tidal waves, while 4,916 people were still missing, the president's office said.

In India, 11,330 were killed and 870,000 others were affected, with many thousands still missing, officials said.

The government said the worst hit was Tamil Nadu state and neighbouring Pondicherry with 7,330 killed. On the Andaman and Nicobar islands at least 4,000 are dead and 3,000 more are missing, according to police.

In southern Thailand nearly 2,400 people including more than 700 foreign tourists were killed, the interior ministry said. The ministry listed 6,130 people missing, most of whom Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said were feared dead.

In Myanmar at least 90 people were killed, according to the UN, but the real toll was expected to be far higher.

At least 75 people were killed and another 42 were confirmed missing in the tourist paradise of the Maldives, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said.

Sixty-six people were dead in Malaysia, most of them in Penang, police said.

In Bangladesh a father and a child were killed after a tourist boat capsized in large waves, officials said.

Fatalities also occurred on the East Coast of Africa where 132 people were declared dead in Somalia, 10 in Tanzania and one in Kenya.

The US Geological Survey said the earthquake west of Sumatra measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, making it the largest quake worldwide in the last four decades.

A false alarm that new killer waves were about to hit sparked panic in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand yesterday, reports Associated Press from Banda Aceh.

India issued a tsunami warning at midday, but then hours later its science minister, Kapil Sibal, went on television to announce the warning based on information received from a US research firm was incorrect.

Still, the alert sparked panic among people traumatised by Sunday's devastation. Tsunami sirens in southern Thailand sent people dashing from beaches, but only small waves followed the alarms.

An estimated 5.7 magnitude aftershock was recorded in seas northwest of Sumatra by the Hong Kong observatory yesterday morning, along with earlier, overnight quakes at India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. But a 5.7 quake would be about 1,000 times less powerful than Sunday's, and probably would have 'negligible impact', said geologist Jason Ali of University of Hong Kong.

The false alarm highlighted the lack of an organised tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean region, which experts have already said may have worsened the crisis.

Hundreds of tonnes of emergency supplies of tarpaulins, water purification systems, food and medicines continued to pour into Asia yesterday, but little was reaching the injured, sick and hungry tsunami survivors, reports Reuters from Bangkok.

Aid officials said the next stage of the tsunami disaster could be the spread of deadly diseases like cholera, through contaminated water, which could double the death toll.

The UN estimates up to 5 million people are in desperate need of aid.

Some survivors have seen no aid due to the inaccessibility of the worst hit areas, cut off from the outside world by flooding and downed bridges, and the sheer magnitude of the disaster affecting many countries.

Aid started pouring into Indonesia only to stop at the airport due to a lack of fuel for trucks to move it.

Rescue workers were still struggling to reach some cut off areas and many have been too busy recovering the thousands of disfigured and bloated corpses to help deliver aid.

The UN admits only a fraction of aid is getting to where it is needed. "We are doing very little at the moment," UN Chief Disaster Relief Co-ordinator Jan Egeland acknowledged in New York.

"It will take maybe 48 to 72 hours more to be able to respond to the tens of thousands of people who would like to have assistance today--or yesterday, rather," he said. "I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead."

In Sri Lanka, doctors said survivors were becoming ill. "People in the refugee camps are falling sick," said M Rodrigo, district secretary in Trincomalee, in the northeast. "They need medicine more than food and clothing right now."

Malaria and dengue fever are endemic in the Southeast Asia and flooding and stagnant, polluted water left by the tsunami will create ideal conditions for mosquitoes to spread the diseases.

At Colombo's airport, aircraft with tonnes of much needed foreign aid were landing. The Red Cross said it had sent several flights to Sri Lanka carrying enough emergency supplies for 120,000 and that it was housing some 40,000 people in 66 camps.

But like Indonesia's Aceh province, few tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka were receiving government or foreign aid, with most relief being delivered by religious groups and locals.

"The government has done nothing for us so far. Everything you see happening here is being done by the local community," said Mohammed Tamir, who has lost his wife and daughter.

The tsunami relief operation from Indonesia to Sri Lanka to Somalia is one of the biggest humanitarian exercises in history, with half a billion dollars and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of emergency supplies promised or delivered, reports AFP.

The amount includes 250 million dollars released by the World Bank yesterday.

The British government yesterday raised its pledge for aid to the tsunami disaster to 96 million dollars, more than tripling its offer from a day earlier, the Department for International Development said, adding the new pledge makes Britain the largest bilateral donor to the relief effort.

Leading the way earlier yesterday, Swedish Development Aid Minister Carin Jaemtin announced a donation of 75 million dollars in emergency aid.

Meanwhile, US President George Bush and senior US officials reacted sharply to a comment this week by Jan Egeland, UN chief disaster relief co-ordinator, that rich nations have been "stingy" in giving aid to poorer nations.

Bush later announced the formation of a 'core group' of countries formed by Australia, Japan, India and the United States to avoid duplication and overcome 'gaps in the relief process'.

Bush said the US pledge of $35 million was just a start.

A US military unit based in Japan will set up a post in Thailand to run US efforts. The Pentagon is sending an aircraft carrier group to Sumatra and another group including a helicopter carrier was headed for the Bay of Bengal.

The financial costs, estimated at up to $14 billion, are tiny relative to human suffering. Japan's 1995 Kobe earthquake killed 5,000 but cost $132 billion.

US, Japanese and Australian naval ships were steaming toward the disaster area with onboard hospitals and water desalination plants. Seven of the US ships can produce 90,000 gallons of fresh water a day and one ship can deploy a field hospital ashore when it arrives in Thailand in about a week.

New Delhi will shun New Year celebrations, with elite hotels and clubs cancelling festivities after the devastation caused by a massive tsunami across the Indian Ocean, reports AFP from New Delhi.

New Delhi's presidential palace has set the example by deciding not to illuminate the historical building for the first time since India's independence in 1947. "Unlike in the previous years, President APJ Abdul Kalam will not receive any one to exchange New Year greetings on that day," his office said.

One of the biggest dance parties being planned in New Delhi's Habitat Centre with live music from popular band Euphoria has been cancelled to mourn the thousands of people who died in the disaster.

Its most famous colonial-era Gymkhana Club also pulled the plug on the annual festivities saying, "It just does not feel right to host parties."

Reuters, AFP, AP