Sat, Jan 15, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Disease threat eases in disaster zone

AGENCIES , PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS AND BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

The threat of disease decimating survivors of Asia's tsunami has receded but aid agencies remain on their guard, the UN said yesterday as doctors reported children dying from pneumonia.

Indonesia found almost 4,000 more bodies of tsunami victims, pushing the global death toll from the disaster above 160,000. Despite that increase, signs of recovery were emerging.

Life was starting to return to normal in towns and villages on battered Indian Ocean coasts with markets reopening and fishermen casting their nets at sea again after the Dec. 26 earthquake and the tsunami that it triggered.

Worries were fading that the death toll could double if disease broke out in afflicted areas, but aid agencies said they must keep up their guard and were acting to prevent malaria in the Indonesian province of Aceh that was worst hit by the wave.

"There are no alarm bells ringing, but we cannot slacken our efforts. The threat is still there," Margareta Wahlstrom, the UN special coordinator for the disaster, told reporters in Jakarta after returning from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

In Indonesia at least 110,000 people died and many thousands more are missing after the earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra island.

More than 30,000 died in Sri Lanka, over 15,000 in India and 5,300 in Thailand. With deaths also reported in Malaysia, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar and east African nations, the total stands at more than 162,000.

To try to build a buffer against future tsunamis, Indonesia will replant swathes of mangrove forest along its vulnerable coastline, Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said.

Environmental experts say Southeast Asia's mangroves -- many of which have been ripped out to make room for shrimp and fish farms -- could have helped to slow the tsunami by providing a barrier between waves and land.

Kaban said Indonesia would revive its mangrove coastal defenses, earmarking 600,000 hectares for revitalization.

"The tsunami in Aceh made us see the need to speed up this process," Kaban said.

About 700,000 people were made homeless in Aceh and many survivors were now living in makeshift camps.

The World Health Organization said initial fears of epidemics were easing because most survivors now had access either to clean water or water-purification tablets.

The global response to the disaster has been unprecedented. Governments have promised US$5.5 billion in aid, with individuals and corporations pledging at least US$2 billion more.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday said he will appoint a special envoy to oversee relief and reconstruction efforts.

"In order to ensure the maximum coherence and coordination in the relief and reconstruction efforts, I have decided to appoint a special envoy," Annan told a news conference in Port Louis, Mauritius, on the sidelines of a UN conference on small islands.

A UN donors' conference in Geneva this week raised some US$717 million to assist the 12 countries battered by the devastating tsunami.

UN agencies are also leading the effort to set up a global warning system that Annan said should not just cover tsunamis but also other threats such as storm surges and cyclones.

Elsewhere, US President George W. Bush said US aid efforts following the tsunami would improve the US' image.

"In ... responding to the tsunami, many in the Muslim world have seen a great compassion in the American people," Bush said in an interview with ABC News to be aired yesterday.

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