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Articulo The Economist . The Economist . 08/01/2005

The Economist

The world is responding generously to the emergency needs of Asia's shattered coastal communities. But rebuilding will take more than money

foto: The Economist

The waters have receded; the tragedy is mounting. Almost two weeks after a towering tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean, the death toll is some 150,000 and is still climbing. Yet attention must now focus on the survivors of the cataclysm. United Nations officials estimate that about 500,000 have been injured and millions more left homeless. Providing them all with food, water and medicine is proving difficult enough. But the hardest-hit communities will need not just temporary succour, but near-total rebuilding—if, indeed, they can be revived at all.

It took the first-aid shipments over a week to reach some of the most remote devastated areas. Along the western coast of Aceh, at the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, many roads and ports had been completely washed away, forcing relief workers to deliver aid by air. When the first helicopters, dispatched from an American aircraft-carrier, arrived over some stricken villages, surging mobs of famished people prevented them from landing. Other villages had been obliterated entirely. After visiting the ruins of the city of Meulaboh, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's president, complained that the relief effort had been too slow and asked for more aid.

The full extent of the tragedy, as many have said, will never be known. In Aceh, a decades-old insurgency has prevented the authorities from holding a reliable census for years. Many bodies were washed out to sea, or buried under debris, and will not be counted, let alone identified. Even in relatively rich and well-organised countries like Thailand, thousands remain missing.

But as relief efforts gathered pace, a crude picture of the calamity emerged. As suspected from the outset, Aceh, the region closest to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunamis, suffered the most casualties: almost 100,000 killed, at the last count, and many more injured or left homeless. Some 30,000 perished in Sri Lanka, and thousands more in India, Thailand and elsewhere.

Relief workers have now reached almost all areas, save parts of Aceh and some tiny, remote islands. The secretive and incompetent military regime in Myanmar caused concern by refusing aid, insisting that only 59 people in the country had died. But it eventually relented and admitted representatives from various aid agencies. One of them, from the World Food Programme (WFP), found nothing to contradict the government's death toll, but estimated that up to 30,000 Burmese may need handouts of food. Some doubt also remains about the fate of tribesmen—indeed, entire tribes—living in India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. However, a hail of arrows, shot up from the forest of one tiny island at an Indian coast guard helicopter hovering above, suggested that there were at least some survivors.

By far the biggest concern, however, is the state of the survivors. Millions were left without food or shelter. Thousands have broken bones and appalling lacerations from their pummelling by the waves. Many have pneumonia, thanks to long stints in cold water. Fears remain that unsanitary conditions amid the ruins, and a lack of clean water in particular, could lead to outbreaks of disease.

Even places where the death toll was relatively low are in dire need of help. The tsunami killed only 82 people in the Maldives, for example. Yet they washed over the entire archipelago—where the highest ground is 1.8 metres (six feet) above sea level—destroying most buildings and contaminating water supplies. Seventy-nine of the country's 199 inhabited islands no longer have safe drinking water, says the government. Fourteen were so badly damaged that their entire populations have been evacuated. Some 60,000 people—a fifth of the population—are short of food.

The world chips in

Money, at least, does not seem to be a problem. Donors have already pledged over $4 billion, and have offered to stump up more if need be. Germany alone has pledged $674m, followed by Japan with $500m, Australia with $380m and America with $350m. These government grants do not include weighty sums donated by private citizens around the world. Ordinary Americans, for example, have already stumped up over $100m. George Bush has asked his father and another ex-president, Bill Clinton, to promote a campaign to raise yet more. Gordon Brown, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, has also proposed debt relief for the countries affected by the tsunami.

foto: The Economist

That leaves logistics as the main challenge facing the relief effort. Infrastructure in the most ravaged areas, including Aceh and the southern and eastern coasts of Sri Lanka, was never great in the first place. The tsunami has made matters much worse. Roads are being hastily repaired and ports and airstrips cleared to ease the delivery of aid.

There simply are not enough trucks in Sri Lanka to handle all the supplies arriving there, according to Anthony Banbury, the regional head of the WFP. The organisation is trying to import more, he says, and is also on the lookout for barges, hovercraft and planes small enough to land on tiny airstrips. As it is, the WFP has had to rely on outside help to transport many of its provisions. The Australian navy and American helicopters have ferried rations to remote corners of Aceh, for example. Inevitably, bureaucratic rows and bottlenecks have slowed the distribution of aid. India has turned down most foreign help, to the dismay of many commentators.

Rumours are already spreading of greedy Indonesian officials pocketing goods intended for the victims. Heavy rains have brought further chaos to eastern Sri Lanka. The main airport in Aceh was closed for half a day after a plane hit a water buffalo that had strayed on to the runway. The buffalo survived, but the plane could be removed from the runway only with special lifting equipment rushed in from Singapore by helicopter. Even better off and more accessible countries are suffering from specific shortages: Thailand says it needs not money, but help with storing and identifying bodies, which are rotting in the tropical heat.

Nonetheless, most victims now have access to food, water, shelter and basic medical attention. The WFP is feeding half a million people. India has provided temporary accommodation for 380,000, while camps for another 500,000 are being built in Aceh. Medical teams have arrived in many remote areas, while some of the injured have been evacuated to relief centres. The United Nations Children's Fund is even inoculating against measles hundreds of thousands of children displaced by the tsunami.

In some areas, a semblance of normality has returned. Children went back to school on the west coast of Thailand earlier this week, and are scheduled to do so in southern India soon. The governments of Thailand and Sri Lanka are at pains to emphasise that business is going on as usual in most parts of the two countries, for fear that tourists will stay away and thus compound the economic damage wrought by the tsunami.

How to rebuild?

Officials in the affected countries are already turning their attention to longer-term planning. On January 6th, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened a summit in Jakarta to discuss what needs to be done. Many regional leaders attended, along with such dignitaries as Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, and Colin Powell, America's secretary of state. Mr Powell offered American help to set up a system to provide advance warning of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, similar to the mechanism already in place in the Pacific. For the most part, however, discussion centred on the problems of reconstruction.

foto: The Economist

They are many. Given the huge sums of money available, it should eventually be possible to rebuild ruined houses, repair infrastructure and replace damaged goods. But the process will be enormously complicated and time-consuming. According to Derek Staples of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), some 80% of the fishing vessels along Sri Lanka's coastline have been damaged—half of them irreparably. The poor fishermen who use them have no money to pay for repairs or replacements, or to feed themselves while they wait for help to arrive. Millions of people throughout the region are in the same state.

Moreover, those few fishermen who still have vessels may find that there are far fewer fish to be caught. The FAO has received several reports of reefs smashed by the tsunami or buried under silt. The same applies to large areas of mangrove forest and reed beds, breeding grounds for fish. Since there have been no tsunamis of comparable size in the Indian Ocean in living memory, no one knows how badly fish stocks will be affected or how long they will take to recover.

The outlook for coastal farming is equally bleak, according to Gamini Keerthisinghe, an agricultural expert at the FAO. He says that seawater has penetrated up to three kilometres (1.9 miles) inland in some places, killing crops and contaminating wells. But it may well have leached further underground, or into the water table. In theory, farmers could restore their fields by flushing them with fresh water. But many of the necessary irrigation channels were themselves destroyed in the tsunami, while the water sources that feed them may also have been contaminated. Mr Keerthisinghe tells of one Sri Lankan farmer who drained a contaminated well five times after the tsunami had receded, only to find seawater seeping back. The business of conducting tests to see how widespread such problems are is expected to take six months or so.

Tourism, too, will suffer (see article). The tourists themselves may be willing to return to the region quite quickly, as they did after an outbreak of SARS, a respiratory disease, in East Asia in 2003. But the facilities to receive them may take longer to repair. Nineteen of the Maldives' 87 resorts are said to be severely damaged. Hotels in southern Sri Lanka fared even worse. Since tourism, fisheries and agriculture are the three main industries in the affected areas, the unemployed have no alternative livelihoods to fall back on. Mr Annan has declared that it may take as long as ten years to set all this to rights.

Some spots may never recover. It makes little sense to reconstruct an entire village from scratch amid contaminated fields close to depleted fishing grounds for a greatly diminished population. Already, officials are talking about moving settlements away from the shore, changing building codes, introducing new crops and amending fishing regulations. Some environmentalists argue that the clearing of mangroves to make way for shrimp ponds exacerbated the damage. They want to set up reforestation projects. While such debates grind on, impoverished victims of the tsunami are likely to drift to cities or abroad seeking employment.

Political reverberations

Much will depend on how the governments concerned handle the reconstruction. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister of Thailand, has already ordered state-owned banks to lend to the rebuilding effort. He has also eased visa requirements for tourists in an effort to stem departures. Thais seem to like this can-do attitude: Mr Thaksin's ratings have jumped since the tsunami struck. All this may boost the ruling Thai Rak Thai party's fortunes in a general election scheduled for February 6th. At the very least, the crisis seems to have distracted attention from the continuing insurgency in southern Thailand, which the authorities have been battling for a year with little success.

Mr Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia, has also cut a dash during the crisis. His predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, shrank from public appearances and delegated most work to her ministers. Mr Yudhoyono, by contrast, flew to Aceh from the opposite end of the country as soon as news of the tsunami reached him.

The tragedy may even help to change the course of the long-running separatist rebellion in Aceh. Many Indonesians dismiss the province as a puzzling and troublesome place. Yet the tsunami has prompted an unprecedented rush of interest and sympathy. It has also forced the government to admit aid workers and journalists in great numbers for the first time in several years. The army's conduct will be subject to greater scrutiny, while the guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement will find it hard to stage any attacks without looking callous.

The relief effort is also doing wonders for Indonesia's foreign relations. America suspended all military co-operation with Indonesia in 2001, in protest at the Indonesian army's conduct in East Timor. But American soldiers have been working side-by-side with their Indonesian counterparts to deliver aid. Australia, too, is lavishing aid in an effort to patch up ties that had been strained by its government's recent talk of unilateral strikes against suspected Indonesian terrorists.

Indeed, the catastrophe has provided all manner of diplomatic openings. India, although itself afflicted, has sent aid to Sri Lanka and the Maldives to cement its standing as the primary power in the region. Its rival, China, is also loosening its purse-strings. Within Sri Lanka, the government and Tamil separatists appear to be co-operating in the relief effort. The goodwill generated by these gestures may ebb when the crisis recedes, of course. But for the time being, it is one of the precious few reasons for cheer.

Sri Lanka: Still squabbling

Officials and rebels are arguing over aid

For those seeking a silver lining in the wake of the tsunami's destruction, Sri Lanka looked like a good place to start. For the first few days after the waves struck, government officials and separatist rebels sounded a conciliatory note. Both sides called for national unity and vowed to co-operate over relief efforts. This collaboration, many hoped, might help build trust. A resumption of peace talks—on hold since early 2003—seemed possible, and perhaps an end to the 30-year-old civil war pitting mostly Hindu Tamil rebels against the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese government.

But in the last few days, a war of words has broken out again. Spokesmen for the Tamil Tigers, as the rebels are known, have accused the government of dividing aid unfairly. More is being sent to the largely Sinhalese south, they say, than to the Tamil-majority areas in the east. The government, for its part, claims that the Tigers are trying to pass off its aid as their own, and even spurning assistance in order to exacerbate the crisis and so win international sympathy.

So which is it: sweetness and light or business as usual? A little of both, it seems. Stories abound of ordinary Tamils and Sinhalese helping one another. A genuine spirit of reconciliation seems to have infected some of the wave-ravaged districts. “People were seeing each other as human beings and not as Tamils, Sinhalas or Muslims,” said one resident of Batticaloa, on the eastern coast.

For sure, there has been some co-operation between low-level functionaries on both sides. Government officials have helped to distribute aid in Tiger-controlled areas. Government soldiers are even said to have co-ordinated with their rebel counterparts to speed the flow of emergency supplies through military checkpoints.

But, equally clearly, neither side can resist the temptation to score political points. Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sri Lanka's president, says she is not sure if the Tigers can be trusted. A spokesman for the Tigers, in turn, declared that the new-found friendship with the government was purely practical and did not in any way alter the group's determination to bring about an independent Tamil state.

All the same, the tsunami probably has reduced the odds of renewed conflict. According to Mrs Kumaratunga, the waves washed away much of the Tigers' weaponry. Their naval base at Mullaittivu is said to have been severely damaged. The army, too, has its hands full assisting the newly destitute. What is more, the tsunami almost certainly shifted many landmines around, leaving everyone in the dark about where they lie—another reason for both sides to think twice before going back on the offensive.

Indonesia: Aceh's grief

As more and more refugees arrive, the provincial capital tries to recover

foto: The Economist

And not much time to mourn

On the streets of Banda Aceh, men and women are still wandering in shock. Many barely know where they are. Others just sit and sob, rocking gently from side to side.

Almost two weeks after the earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, the stench of death is slowly fading from the city at the centre of the devastation. Days of toil by thousands of Indonesian soldiers have removed the mountains of bloated corpses from the streets. What they cannot remove is the trauma of those who have survived. Indonesia has only a tiny number of people trained to give the sort of psychological counselling that might help. Tens of thousands of people, therefore, may suffer permanent mental harm.

Around 500,000 Acehnese are now wholly dependent on aid. Their homes have gone, and many have lost everything except the clothes they were wearing when the tsunami struck. Their province has been devastated. More than 1,150 schools, 5,800km (3,600 miles) of road and 490 bridges have been destroyed, and more than one-third of the 4,312 villages have no functioning government. Tens of thousands of refugees are now streaming along the western coast towards Banda Aceh like an army of ants. Many have walked for over a week, driven by their desperation to get to a place that is safe.

Unable to cope with the influx, the authorities have started to build semi-permanent camps, each able to accommodate 20,000 people. Water and food are gradually becoming more available in the city, though many traders have died and many shops have been destroyed. But in isolated districts, where the grim stench has not faded, help is only just arriving. The only lifeline has been a fleet of helicopters carrying essential supplies, including some from an American aircraft-carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Even when outside aid can get to Banda Aceh, it cannot always get much further. A shortage of vehicles is one problem, but a lack of inter-agency co-operation is a much greater obstacle. After decades of international vilification, Indonesia's army dislikes outsiders, particularly in Aceh, where it has been fighting the separatist Free Aceh Movement since 1976. This has translated into acts of seemingly deliberate procrastination and obstructionism, which are only just being ironed out by Indonesia's relief co-ordinator, Alwi Shihab, the senior welfare minister.

As a result of Mr Shihab's efforts, UN representatives are now allowed into co-ordination meetings. Tales of favouritism and military corruption, however, continue to come in from the field. The slew of visits to Indonesia by foreign dignitaries attending the aid summit on January 6th has caused yet more logistical overload.

Medical resources are woefully inadequate. People who survived lengthy buffeting in the fierce waters often need urgent care; but Banda Aceh's main hospital was flooded, and the other two surviving facilities are overwhelmed. For the moment, patients being brought in from the west coast have nowhere to get treatment.

There is no shortage of volunteers willing to help Aceh recover. Many, though, have no particular skills for the work that has to be done, and the challenge is enormous. “The task has become so big, it's a black hole,” says Dennis Heffernan, Mr Shihab's American adviser. “It will take all the energy everyone has, times ten.”

The world's response: More generous than thou

Emergency aid is proving just as politically charged as any other kind

foto: The Economist

An alien helper

Disaster aid is generally thought to be different: everyone is for it. Development aid, by contrast, is often overtly political (it tends to go to friends) and always controversial (is it squandered? does it breed dependency?). Humanitarian aid given after, or during, wars is almost as contentious: it may be used by one side or the other to keep the fighting going or, by donors, to influence the outcome. But aid given after a natural disaster is pure, an affirmation of the best of the human spirit, uncontaminated by politics. That's what used to be said, anyway. It is the first piece of received wisdom to deserve examination after Asia's catastrophe.

Not that individuals have failed to respond generously to the disaster; quite the opposite. They reached for their credit cards from the start, leaving governments scrambling to show themselves just as big-hearted. Tony Blair promised on January 5th to outdo, with British taxpayers' money, whatever they might contribute voluntarily as individuals. Thus came the first politicisation of the tsunami aid: governments using it to win votes at home.

Then came the use of aid to score old points. Jan Egeland, the United Nations' emergency-relief co-ordinator, was accused of being churlish towards the Americans by calling western countries' first pledges stingy; and the French and some other Europeans, joined by some senior UN officials, were cross that the United States had at first set up a “regional core group” with Japan, India and Australia, but not with the European Union or any European country. On January 6th, Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, announced at a tsunami-relief summit in Jakarta that the group would be disbanded, and many of its assets would be put under UN direction.

By this time the aid issue was being used to peddle some pet schemes. Gordon Brown, Britain's finance minister, was arguing the case for a debt moratorium for the countries worst affected. Debt is a crippling burden for many countries, especially in Africa, but relieving it may not be the wisest way to help a government, like Indonesia's, that chooses to spend 3% of its GDP on defence but only 1.3% on education and 0.6% on health. In any event, debt relief will be discussed at a meeting of the Paris club of creditor countries next week.

Some people, however, have much grander, even more political, aims for aid-giving. Mr Powell spelled out his in Indonesia before the summit: “We'd be doing it regardless of religion,” he said of America's contribution. “But I think it does give the Muslim opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action...And I hope that, as a result of our efforts, as a result of our helicopter pilots being seen by the citizens of Indonesia helping them, that value system of ours will be reinforced.” American aid helped dry up the “pools of dissatisfaction” that led to terrorism, he said. But in Aceh, where Indonesian Islamist groups are giving relief, some Muslims have denounced America's help as cynically motivated.

Never mind the motives: is the aid doing any good? By this week, the main concerns were to prevent epidemics, especially those caused by dirty water, to find and tend the injured, to provide shelter and start clearing the debris. Children, who made up over a third of the tsunami's victims, according to the UN Children's Fund, are a key concern. With more money pledged in the week to January 3rd than the UN had received in the whole of 2004, cash is not the problem. Getting aid workers in place and providing the millions of displaced people with food, shelter, clean water and medical help are much harder.

Outsiders' relief operations fall into two categories. First, some foreign governments have sent members of their armed forces. The United States has dispatched more than 20 naval ships, including an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and a hospital ship, plus 1,300 marines. It has also sent six big transport aircraft and nine surveillance and rescue planes. Britain has sent two naval vessels; military help has also come from Australia, Germany and Pakistan. Japan is planning military aid.

Meanwhile, umpteen aid agencies have joined the cause. More than 50, said the UN, were this week opening field hospitals in Aceh alone, and countless more are working in other stricken places. Many were present in one of four regional centres: Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital; Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh; Meulaboh, not far to its south; and U-Tapao, a military base in Thailand.

But who was in charge? No one. At the summit in Jakarta, a powerful array of world leaders pledged to put their contributions through the UN; until then, only rough co-ordination efforts had been carried out by its agencies and the American-powered “regional core group”.

Prior to the meeting, Mr Egeland was still appealing for more help, especially for helicopters, fork-lift trucks, boats, planes, air-traffic-control units and lorries. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says half a million people will need emergency help for another six months. Then, though, as reconstruction begins, the disaster relief will start turning into development aid. What can the victims, and their governments, expect?

Disappointment, if past form is repeated. Of the $1.1 billion pledged to help the people of the Iranian city of Bam, destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, only $17.5m was sent, according to the Iranian government. Mozambique likewise received less than half of the $400m it was promised after the floods of 2000, said a minister. And Honduras and Nicaragua still await two-thirds of the $8.7 billion proffered after Hurricane Mitch swept through in 1998. Other countries have similar tales to tell. The IMF, World Bank and individual countries accused of breaking their word may have had good reasons for doing so: perhaps the intended recipients were in no position to make good use of further money. But, if so, donors should now be more careful about their pledges.

There are other fears: that “aid fatigue” will set in, leading donors to forget other needy recipients, such as AIDS and malaria sufferers, and the people of Africa. That would be tragic, and an insult to countries like India, whose prime minister was, despite the devastation in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, going ahead with a long-scheduled AIDS meeting this week.

Many poor countries are already concerned that the lofty aims adopted by 191 countries in the UN Millennium Declaration may be in jeopardy. One prominent aim was for rich countries to strive to reach the long-standing objective of giving 0.7% of GDP to development aid. Several of the countries that have been loudest in their declarations of generosity in the past fortnight are laggards in the giving of development aid. Germany provides just 0.28% of GDP, Britain 0.34%, France 0.41%. The United States, though its citizens are individually generous, is at the bottom of the rich countries' table, giving 0.15% of GDP.

Hopes and fears, however, do not rest on cash alone. If good is to come of the disaster it will come of wider lessons learned. The lateness of the response, the lack of an early-warning system, the paucity of rapid-reaction units and the absence of an overall relief co-ordinator all demand solutions. At present the United States is the only power with a worldwide reach but, even so, it took six days to get 40 helicopters to work in the disaster areas. The UN, for its part, has more experience than any other organisation in delivering emergency relief, but it is a sprawling group of agencies with no resources worth speaking of other than those of its member countries. Somehow power and experience must be married and, with the help of the EU, Japan and others, persuaded to set up a standing disaster-response unit that can act at short notice.

foto: The Economist

Lastly, more thought, and aid, must be given to reducing the cost and casualties caused by natural disasters. The numbers affected in such catastrophes have been rising dramatically in recent years (see chart), and, according to a report by a charity, Tearfund, they are mostly in poor countries. Tearfund points to the effectiveness of such measures as planting trees to reduce the impact of floods and landslides, building techniques to help houses withstand earthquakes, cyclone shelters, sea dykes and so on. The United States Geological Survey reckons that the economic losses from natural disasters in the 1990s could have been reduced by $280 billion by investing just one-seventh of that sum in such measures. But giving for such ends is not fashionable. Six months before Mozambique was inundated in 2000, its government appealed for $2.7m to prepare for an emergency. It received less than half that. After the floods, but only after them, donors gave about $200m.

As it happens, a UN conference on disaster-reduction has long been planned to take place in the Japanese city of Kobe from January 18th to 22nd. May it lead to action, as well as words.

Fuente: The Economist
Fecha: 08/01/2005

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