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Promised Aid Slow to Reach Tsunami-Hit Areas

  • Heda Bayron

Three months after a killer tsunami brought death and destruction to 12 Indian Ocean countries, relief operations have been scaled down in the worst-affected areas. But the difficult and costly reconstruction process for millions of people has barely begun.

The tsunami on December 26 completely destroyed Utsanee Bangavijit's street stall in Khao Lak, the Thai resort where hundreds of foreign tourists and locals lost their lives.

Ms. Utsanee survived, and unlike hundreds of thousands of people around the Indian Ocean, she does not have to live in a refugee camp.

But months later, she is struggling to bring her life back to normal. Ms. Utsanee complains that she has received almost nothing to help rebuild her business almost three months after the disaster struck.

A fisherman from the area says he received some money from the government, but he is still in debt after carrying out repairs on his boats.

Experts say reconstruction must focus on restoring peoples' livelihoods. The Manila-based Asian Development Bank, or ADB, says about two million people could slip into poverty unless this problem is addressed.

" While we have to mourn for the dead, I think we have to take care of the living, and that's where the priority has to be," said Rajat Nag, a director with the non-profit multinational bank. "Restore the livelihoods of the fishermen, the artisans, the poor people. So providing immediate help for their fishing boats, basic infrastructure… - those are the priorities at the moment. "

The bank estimates nearly $8 billion would be needed for reconstruction in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India, the countries most seriously affected. But despite the record amount of relief funds pledged by the international community, the bank said last week that funding is short by five billion dollars.

It said Indonesia, whose Aceh Province was the worst-hit area, alone needs nearly $5 billion, while India and Sri Lanka require about one billion dollars each.

Death and destruction came in an instant the morning of December 26, when mammoth waves triggered by an earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra crashed into coastlines all around the Indian Ocean.

The waves washed away everything in their path - houses, cars, animals, trees. It swept babies from the arms of mothers, drowned entire families and drenched many people's dreams.

About 290,000 people died, or are missing and presumed dead, and thousands were left homeless. In Aceh Province alone, 230,000 people are thought to have perished. In Sri Lanka, about 4,000 children lost at least one parent.

Within days, a shocked world responded to the catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. From billionaires to cleaning ladies, people donated money to help the victims. Doctors, nurses and other volunteers traveled across the world to the worst-affected areas in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Thailand.

Countries such as Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States sent naval vessels, helicopters and military personnel to rescue survivors, deliver water, medicine and food, and set up temporary shelters and hospitals. Like bidders at an auction, nations pledged higher and higher amounts to the relief effort.

The ADB, the United Nations and other agencies are now urging those who have pledged money to pay up. The United Nations says its post-tsunami appeal for funds elicited pledges of $1 billion, but only $500 million had been received as of early March.

Jan Egeland, head of the United Nations relief agency, says "phenomenal progress" has been made in the relief effort. But he warns that reconstruction will be a much tougher task.

"There is some worries regarding transition from emergency to recovery and development. That may go slower... We really need to put an enormous effort to get national authorities on that," said Mr. Egeland.

For many tsunami survivors and relatives of the victims, in Asia and beyond, all the aid in the world will not heal their wounds.

Dozens of bodies remain unidentified, and many families are still looking for their loved ones, even though the chances of finding them alive are now virtually zero.

In the Thai resort island of Phuket, where the population is mostly Buddhist, some people have had trouble returning to their normal activities. They say the spirits of the dead constantly remind them of what happened.

In Aceh, frightened residents are reminded of the tsunami by occasional tremors in a quake-prone area.

There have also been small moments of joy in the past three months. Last month, Murugupillai and Jenita Jeyarajah of Sri Lanka were reunited with the baby boy they thought had been swallowed by the waves - although it took a three-week legal battle and a DNA test to prove that they were the parents.

The infant was found in a pile of garbage and taken to hospital, where staff dubbed him Baby 81, because he was the 81st patient brought into the hospital.

His parents have renamed him Abilash, or Hope.

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