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Somali Tsunami Relief Operations Continue

The full impact of the recent tsunami on Somalia still is not known. But relief workers say coastal villages have been hard hit and are in urgent need of food, clean water, sanitation and shelter.

UN officials admit the figures are incomplete, but say at least 150 people died in the December tsunami in Somalia – and more than 50,000 lost their homes. They hope to have better information by next week, after an assessment team visits coastal areas.

Simone Wolken of the UN refugee, the UNHCR, agency says even before the tsunami, bad weather had already taken a toll on Somalia.

"The area that is now hit by the tsunami is in fact an area that has been affected by four to five years of drought, depending on the area that you are talking about. And when that drought was broken there were very heavy rains and a cold spell. So, the nomads that hadn’t lost all their livestock, the livestock simply died because they were weakened," she says.

She says the drought and floods caused many people to relocate – moving to an area that offered the promise of a new livelihood.

"Quite a number had migrated to the coast from inland because they had lost all their livestock and other means of making a living. So they came to the coast to do some fishing, to at least be able to survive. And now, they have lost everything yet again and they are totally destitute," she says.

The UNHCR, the World Food Program and UNICEF are among the agencies operating in Somalia. So far, the UNHCR alone is providing over 32,000 blankets, 10,000 plastic sheets, 10,000 jerry cans, and 3,000 sleeping nets.

Ms. Wolken says the tsunami destroyed many sources of clean drinking water that attracted people who lived far from the shoreline.

"The water from the tsunami has washed away the wells and contaminated the shallow wells that are used by persons up to 80, 90, 100 kilometers inland and on which those people depend," she says.

What’s more, the tsunami struck at the height of the fishing season.

She says, "This is the time when people there make their living not only for today and tomorrow, but in fact for a larger part of the year. This all has been destroyed and so it’s the immediate humanitarian relief of providing the kitchen sets, the plastic sheeting, the mattresses, the clothing and so on. But it is also really as soon as possible restoring them to human dignity of being able to fend for themselves."

For example, she says UNHCR staffers report the entire strategic Somali fishing town of Hafun needs to be rebuilt.

Ms. Wolken says, "These areas, which I have personally visited many times, were below any subsistence level that one could imagine in the western world before any tsunami hit them."

The UNHCR official says besides causing casualties and physical damage, the tsunami also has increased the risk of human rights abuses. She says the most vulnerable, namely women and children, are in danger of exploitation.