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The United Nations

Extent of Need Could Strain Aid Efforts

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A22

UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 29 -- Secretary General Kofi Annan cut short his vacation and returned to New York on Wednesday to oversee the United Nations' extensive relief effort in Southeast Asia as the region's death toll topped 76,000.

The agency issued a preliminary appeal to governments to give the organization $130 million to set up operations in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives, which were hit hardest by the tsunami. The United Nations will issue a much larger appeal on Jan. 6 to finance its operations over the next six months.

Blood donations are collected in Bangkok to aid victims of the tsunami. Officials fear that the death toll will rise as people die of disease. (Sukree Sukplang -- Reuters)

Annan's return to headquarters reflected the increasing sense of urgency world leaders are attaching to the tsunami, which destroyed villages along thousands of miles of coastline in several nations. U.N. officials fear that tens of thousands more people may die in the coming weeks from disease and polluted drinking water.

The U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, told reporters in New York that international relief workers are straining to respond to the needs of victims in some of the worst-hit areas, including Sumatra, the Maldives and Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

"Indeed we are stretched to the limit," he said. "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. I believe the frustration will be growing in the days and weeks ahead."

Egeland said that the scale of the disaster unfolding in the region is growing each day as new villages are reported partially or fully wiped out from Indonesia to as far away as Somalia on the east coast of Africa. He said that one in four inhabitants of the coastal villages of Banda Aceh have died.

The financial costs of responding to the wreckage wrought by the tsunami are expected to surpass that of any previous U.N. disaster-relief effort. Egeland says that several billion dollars in international assistance will ultimately be required to rebuild the battered communities.

Despite complaining this week that rich countries have been "stingy" aid givers, Egeland said that the international donors have given generously to the relief effort, citing pledges amounting to $220 million in cash. Egeland said that governments have also committed to provide an equal amount of support in food, medicine, equipment and other services.

The United Nations' chief task would be coordinating relief operations for thousands of international relief workers coming into the region from around the world. Their first priority is repairing the sanitation and water systems.

Egeland warned foreign relief workers to stay out of some of the worst-hit areas, including Banda Aceh, unless they arrive with enough food and supplies to support their own activities. He said that aid givers should not place a fresh "burden" on the people they are trying to help.

Egeland also appealed to aid donors to consult major relief agencies, including the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent societies, or countries requiring assistance before sending supplies. He said that well-meaning donors frequently clog main supply lines with nonessential goods.

"Coordination is now vital. It is one of the biggest relief operations ever," he said. "There are few airstrips in many of these areas, and airspace and airstrip space is very, very precious."

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