World aid for tsunami victims turns from trickle into flood

01-02-2005, 06h53

Since a tsunami hit more than half a dozen nations a week ago, aid from around the world has grown steadily as a global disaster steadily unfolded in all its horror.

The funds could rise into the billions of dollars as governments dramatically increase their pledges and private donors respond massively to charity appeals by offering donations via credit card, cash or checks.

A series of donor conferences were to be held in the next few weeks, with the major one opening later this week in New York.

Japan on Saturday promised 500 million dollars to countries devastated by tsunamis, by far outpledging all other countries which are racing to help victims of one of the world's worst disasters.

UN officials said the Japanese contribution raises to nearly 2.0 billion dollars the money raised for relief and reconstruction from massive seismic waves, which have claimed more than 125,000 lives.

In addition to the dispatch of relief flights from airports around the world, US, British, Australian and Japanese navy ships have also been deployed, some with helicopters, to deliver aid as quickly as possible to isolated areas.

Even poor countries like Vietnam and Equatorial Guinea have chipped in with aid money.

Despite the broad array of aid, UN officials warned it could take weeks to deliver clean water, food and medical treatment to isolated areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries, which will be too late for many people.

A week after tidal waves swept the coasts of the Indian Ocean on December 26, the United Nations warned the numbers killed could rise to 150,000, most of them in Indonesia, although it said the true figure may never be known.

Calling it an "epic disaster," US President George W. Bush announced Friday Washington would increase its aid to 350 million dollars, 10 times more than the 35 million dollars pledged Tuesday.

The figure was 14 times more than the US pledge on Monday and followed charges that the United States and other wealthy countries had been "stingy" with their response.

The British government, for its part, had multiplied its pledges by 50-fold, upping its initial offer of almost two million dollars to 96 million dollars by Thursday, making it temporarily the largest bilateral donnor.

Meanwhile, private donors were spurred on by saturation coverage on television, newspapers and the Internet showing the toll rapidly rising from a few thousand to well over 100,000 people killed in 12 countries.

At one point last week, British call centers handling cash pledges took a peak of 15,000 calls a minute, a rate of 900,000 an hour.

The British public had donated 115 million dollars by Saturday. And a New Year's appeal in Britain and other countries triggered another stream of donations.

Tens of millions of dollars have also been raised privately in the United States, Canada, Australia and across Europe as the deaths and disappearance of Western tourists have only made the disaster sink in deeper.

In the United States, the Pfizer pharmaceutical group donated 35 million dollars of cash and drugs and hundreds of thousands of Americans were giving money over the Internet or just dropping dollar bills into cash boxes in their local coffee shop.

The United States is part of a group of countries -- with Australia, India and Japan-- seeking to coordinate the international relief efforts for the Indian Ocean nations. Canada said Friday that it had joined the group, and Bush said other countries would follow.

Calls for greater coordination have grown over the past 48 hours, and a State Department spokesman on Friday highlighted that bottlenecks were building up at airports in the worst-hit countries because emergency supplies were arriving but could not be sent on.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan, Asia's largest economy, would consider more assistance both in money and expertise.

"Japan will provide assistance to the maximum extent possible in three ways: financial resources, knowledge and expertise, and human resources," Koizumi said in a statement.

China, which is seen as increasingly challenging Japan for influence in Asia, promised 60.5 million dollars, a major sum for a developing nation.

As the relief operations continued, the people of Aceh in Indonesia experienced a series of aftershocks from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered the tsunamis on Sunday last week.

US navy helicopters began arriving in Banda Aceh, the devastated capital of Sumatra's Aceh province, on Saturday while a growing number of field hospitals were operating in the city and relief supplies poured into the local airport.

But the chief of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia, Michael Elmquist, told AFP that a myriad of coordination and infrastructure problems was making it impossible to quickly deliver the aid.

"It's going to take weeks before we get out to all the isolated areas," Elmquist told AFP by telephone from Jakarta after returning from Aceh's capital of Banda Aceh.

The United Nations on Saturday confirmed an international donors' conference would be held in Geneva on January 11, following up on a much bigger appeal to be launched on January 6 in New York.

European Union humanitarian aid commissioner Louis Michel hoped the Geneva conference would take current commitments further to ensure funds will be available for rebuilding.

Major donors are also to convene on January 6 in Indonesia, which is hosting a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that will be expanded to include other countries and will focus on the effects of the tidal wave.