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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December, 2004, 17:45 GMT
World helps - but will it forget?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

When natural disasters strike these days, the international response tends to be the same - immediate interest, immediate help but long term neglect.

The scale of this unique calamity requires a unique response.

Emergency relief being organised in Sri Lanka
Helping hands - but for how long?

It is better of course than it used to be. When Krakatoa erupted near Java and Sumatra one August day in 1883, about 40,000 people died, many of them in tsunamis triggered by the explosion. But it took so long for the outside world to find out that not much could be done to help.

But even these days, the clearing up and rebuilding is often left to the local people and their governments who suffered in the first place.

A year ago, the ancient Iranian city of Bam was struck by an earthquake. It killed about 30,000 people. A year on, survivors are still living in temporary shelters.

Three stages

To minimise the effect of disasters, three things have to happen and experts in the field say that they have to happen better this time if mistakes are not to be made.

It is beyond me why we are so stingy. Really. Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least, how rich we have become
Jan Egeland
UN emergency co-ordinator

First, the immediate relief has to be of the right type and sent to the right places. The former US President Bill Clinton told the BBC that because so many countries are affected, others should each take responsibility for helping one or two. In that way duplication, always an issue in disaster relief, could be better avoided.

"It is really important that somebody take the lead in this," he said.

"I think one of the problems is when everybody takes responsibility it's almost like no-one's responsibility."

That might be a bit complicated in the immediate aftermath but it should certainly be considered for the second stage of relief.

The UN has already held meetings with ambassadors from the countries concerned in order to find out what they need immediately.

'Stingy' rich

The second stage is for medium and long term help. The UN is holding a conference next month to discuss the next steps following this disaster. Already the UN's emergency co-coordinator Jan Egeland has said this might be the worst natural disaster ever. That implies the need for unusually large contributions.

He is also complaining that rich countries are not giving enough to the poor anyway.

"It is beyond me why we are so stingy. Really. Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least, how rich we have become," he said.

"There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy."

He suggested that governments "believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."

Another issue in both first and second stages is diplomatic sensitivity. There has been a story in the Israeli press that despite putting out a call for doctors, the Sri Lankan government has not accepted an Israeli military field hospital though it is accepting supplies.

And yet, natural calamities can sometimes make friends of enemies. When Turkey suffered a major earthquake in 1999, Greece was quick to respond and its help has transformed the atmosphere between the two old antagonists.

Warning system

The third stage is to see what can be done to avoid disasters or the effects of them.

In this case, the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean is one obvious gap which could be filled. There is already one in the Pacific.

The problem in the Indian Ocean apparently was that nobody took the threat very seriously. The question was looked at in South East Asia last year and little was done.

And yet, seismologists knew there had been a major earthquake near Indonesia. Even a basic e-mail or phone system could have helped some communities get to safety. The sea surges would take time to reach the shore. But nobody knew what numbers to call.

"I think we all have questions over the early-warning system which prevails in the Pacific, but doesn't seem to go beyond there
Don McKinnon

Given that several of the afflicted countries are in the Commonwealth - India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Malaysia and Bangladesh - the Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon has suggested that this might be a task that the grouping of former British territories might undertake.

"Modern technology would say you should know about these things anywhere in the globe instantly and therefore be able to respond to them, " he told the BBC.

"I think we all have questions over the early-warning system which prevails in the Pacific, but doesn't seem to go beyond there."

The issue will be discussed at a meeting of smaller Commonwealth countries in Mauritius in January.

Perhaps this time, the Commonwealth will concentrate less on rhetoric and more on action. A number of recent conferences have talked alarmingly about the risk from global warming to low-lying islands like the Maldives. The closer risk from tsunamis was not mentioned.

So whether anything actually gets done has to be doubtful. Communities pick up the pieces, governments have other needs to meet and the world moves on - until the next disaster.


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