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Second Tsunami: Complacency

The second tsunami is not about another wave nor another earthquake and thankfully, neither is it about a doubling of the death rate through disease.

The second tsunami which could be as deadly as the first, although this time on a chronic and not such an acute scale, is the sort of complacency which gave rise to the enormous number of deaths in the first place.

The good news messages, that after all the death toll will not double through disease, perhaps creates a false notion in the hearts and minds of the international community that all is well and that normality has resumed. True, the considerable and immediate response from the international community, in which Russia was one of the first on the scene (although this went practically unreported in western news circles) and in which the government of the Russian Federation donated in comparative terms at least as much as other major contributors, has led to the fortunate state of affairs whereby a massive vaccination programme, a back-to-school programme, crime prevention schemes and a clean-up has substantially reduced the risk of an explosion of contagious diseases in the disaster area within three weeks.

UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy stated recently after her tour of Sri Lanka and Indonesia that "In virtually all the countries, apart from Indonesia at this point, not only is the relief effort going well but there are clear signs of the beginning of the recovery effort". Good news but it must be remembered that Carol Bellamy excluded Indonesia, the country which bore the full brunt of the tidal wave, large swathes of northern Sumatra having been totally destroyed.

Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated at a press conference at the end of last week that the feared second wave of the tsunami, the outbreak of disease, now seems not to have appeared. "I do not think it is a right prediction any more that as many people die from the second wave of destroyed infrastructure as we then feared in the beginning".

The International Fund for Agricultural Development is bringing in programmes not to distribute food, but to teach the survivors how to make best use of the resources they have, so as to gather a first crop as soon as possible. A spokesperson for the IFAD stated that "The goal is not only to help them to recover but to increase their capacity to cope with future natural disasters by enabling them to overcome the desperate poverty that makes them so vulnerable".

And vulnerable they are. The livelihoods of countless thousands of people were washed away with their homes and families on December 26th 2004. One million, two hundred thousand people are internally displaced, much of the infrastructure of Aceh has been destroyed and whatever industries there were in coastal areas have been utterly devastated.

Displaced, destroyed, devastated. Yet the complacency which gave rise to this humanitarian catastrophe and the political interference from Jakarta, which has drawn a deadline for foreign military forces to leave the country by 26th March, deserve comment.

If Jakarta's forces were in East Timor, as an unwanted occupation force, whether initially with the nod of Henry Kissinger or not, they were there not for three months and not in a humanitarian capacity. They were there for a quarter of a century and were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. While nobody is looking to score political points in a time of crisis, Jakarta could show more flexibility in its demands, since the fuel needed for the humanitarian operations is supplied in most cases by military aircraft.

As Jan Egeland declared to the press on this question, the transportation of goods, the airlifting of supplies by helicopter and the production of drinking water, today carried out by military forces, "can be taken over by civilians. But I would foresee that we need the military people to give us fuel, to give special kinds of hardware very quickly to certain areas beyond March and I hope really we can have an agreement on that".

Were it not for extreme complacency, a fraction of the number of victims would have died. Where was the early warning system? It was not.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, declared at the meeting of Small Island States in Mauritius recently that seismic posts and mass evacuation training programmes will swing into action and that by June 2006, the early warning system for the Indian Ocean will be ready, extended on a worldwide scale by June 2007.

Finally, a policy is adopted. Too late for the 160.000 dead but possibly in time to save further losses of life. The important thing is for humankind to learn from this horrific lesson that complacency creates catastrophe, whether it is before a natural disaster or after it.

The message is for the world to get behind the UNO, to value and respect its institutions instead of deriding them so that much needed aid can be channeled from a multitude of sources to where and when they are most needed.

Support the UNO, don't destroy it.

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