Getting aid to millions of tsunami victims is a race against time and nations must immediately come forward with the aid they've promised, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday at an emergency summit amid warnings that the 150,000 death toll may double because of disease.
World leaders have gathered in Indonesia, hardest hit by the Dec. 26 disaster, to figure out the best way to speed aid to victims. While nearly US$4 billion has been pledged worldwide, the UN has warned some of the promises might not be honored as in previous disasters.
Annan urged nations to channel US$1.7 billion of the funds to the United Nations for relief, including US$977 million for emergency aid.
"Whole communities have disappeared," Annan said, calling for the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. "Millions in Asia, Africa, and even in far away countries, are suffering unimaginable trauma and psychological wounds that will take a long time to heal. Families have been torn apart.
"The disaster was so brutal, so quick, and so far-reaching, that we are still struggling to comprehend it," Annan added, stressing the need for donor "pledges to be converted into cash quickly ... It is a race against time."
The UN chief said the number killed across Asia and Africa would likely exceed 150,000, but the exact figure would never be known. The World Health Organization warned the toll could double if aid doesn't reach survivors soon.
"As many as 150,000 people are at extreme risk if a major disease outbreak in the affected areas occurs," said WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono described the calamity as "the most destructive natural disaster in living memory."
"Our response to this unprecedented catastrophe must be equally unprecedented," he said at the one-day summit, attended by leaders including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (
A tsunami warning system -- like the one already in place in the Pacific -- should be established in the Indian Ocean as quickly as possible, he said: "Prevention and early warning systems must become a priority."
Japan planned to offer technical expertise to set up the warning system. The country has one of the world's most advanced networks of fiber-optic sensors, which can warn of deadly tsunami within two minutes of a quake.
"No longer must we leave ourselves so vulnerable and so exposed," Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathaim said. "It is well-proven that 10 minutes advance warning can save hundreds of lives."
An early draft of the closing declaration of yesterday's meeting called for the warning system to be set up and for the UN to take the lead in coordinating the relief effort.
Powell told delegates the US would let the UN coordinate relief work. Soon after the tsunami struck, Washington said it and a few other countries would lead the aid effort.
Pledges of aid rushed in on the eve of yesterday's conference.
Australia raised its total aid pledge to US$810 million, the largest government contribution, topping Germany's US$660 million, followed by Japan and the United States.
The US was the first to raise the aid race stakes last week by pledging US$350 million. It's now fourth on the donor list and has sent in an aircraft carrier group and thousands of troops. Japan promised US$500 million last week.