14 October 2005
by Bill Tarrant
Singapore City, Singapore:
One struck near the roof of the world, the other at the bottom of the sea, but an unprecedented aid effort after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami has lessons for Pakistan's catastrophe, aid experts said.
The geography could not be more different -- the 9.15 magnitude earthquake on Dec. 26 spawned a tsunami that swamped tropical coasts, while Saturday's quake destroyed Himalayan villages -- but the aid effort in both disasters have similar challenges.
The tsunami quickly became the most reported and well-funded disaster in history. Over 200 humanitarian organisations, along with 3,000 troops from a dozen countries, arrived to offer aid.
"Nearly everyone could hire a helicopter or boat, make their own needs assessments and distributions, and "fly the flag'," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a recent report.
"Rivalries between agencies, competing to spend unprecedented budgets, did not encourage information sharing," it said.
With roads, bridges and ports destroyed, military aircraft was the primary conduit for tsunami aid. Coordination between civil and military agencies was not good, the IFRC said.
Those are key lessons for Pakistan, whose military is leading the aid effort after Saturday's 7.6 magnitude quake, experts said.
Volunteers lead way
As in the Dec. 26 tsunami, the initial response after the Pakistan quake has come most quickly from volunteers, said Gary Walker, spokesman for Plan International, an aid group working in both Asian disasters.
"Somebody drove up with 50 tents; 24 doctors left their jobs in Karachi to come here and used their own money to buy medical supplies," said Walker, speaking by telephone from Mansehra city, near the epicentre of Saturday's earthquake.
Coordination between military and civilians, between U.N. agencies, established NGOs, individual volunteers and spontaneous micro-aid groups would be essential, the experts said.
"A main pattern that we observe in emergency operations all over the world is people feel that they have to provide assistance that maybe doesn't fit with the reality," said Thierry Meyrat, Head of Delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sri Lanka.
In tropical Sri Lanka, useless winter coats and warm clothing were among the aid that flooded into the country.
In Banda Aceh, NGOs and volunteer groups met each day with the Indonesian government and U.N. agencies after the tsunami to decide who was going to do what.
Convincing Pakistani authorities to cut red tape and streamline aid deliveries was also key, experts said.
"The main frustration we had with Sri Lanka was although they weren't imposing customs duties on goods that arrived, they insisted on customs clearance," said Chris Weeks of the privately funded Airport Emergency Team, which intends to channel aid through Islamabad airport.
"The second thing in Sri Lanka is that the air force insisted on checking every single box of aid because of the security situation with the Tamil (Tigers), Weeks said. "I hope it doesn't happen in Pakistan."
The quake devastated great swathes of Kashmir, a rebel-racked Himalayan territory over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.
Health of survivors
Water-borne diseases and respiratory ailments will threaten survivors in camps as winter approaches, health experts said.
"If the water supply breaks down, you'll have diarrhoeal disease. And in this situation with cold temperatures, more chances of pneumonia, especially children," said Dr. Anshu Banerjee, head of the World Health Organisation office in Banda Aceh.
Health is often cited as one the great successes of the tsunami aid effort -- almost nobody died of the feared outbreaks of communicable diseases -- but it was also among the most over-aided sectors.
One U.N. witness in Meulaboh saw 20 surgeons competing for a single patient. But midwives and nurses were in short supply, the ICRC report said.
Grief, depression and trauma, coupled with bewilderment about camp living, will create a long-term need to treat psycho-social illnesses, health experts said.
The Muslim custom of burying bodies means thousands of victims will probably end up in mass graves and never be identified, leaving families without closure.
Officials and aid experts also worry about donor fatigue after more than $12 billion was pledged for tsunami relief.
Around a million people remain homeless 10 months after the tsunami and now at least two million more in India and Pakistan will need temporary housing, for months if not years.
"One group I would want now to really rise to the challenge are the oil-rich nations which are having windfall profits of the oil prices," U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
"There should not be donor fatigue." (Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Sri Lanka, Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok, Jalil Hamid in Kuala Lumpur)