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Governments Unprepared for Year's Unprecedented Disasters


Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in unprecedented natural disasters, especially in Asia, during the past year. But the suffering and destruction also left cause for hope and peace.

Grief and suffering haunted the world over the past year, in a series of unprecedented disasters.

Last December, walls of water swept away entire towns and villages around the Indian Ocean, after a massive underwater earthquake in Indonesia triggered a tsunami. More than 200,000 people died in 12 countries in Asia and Africa.

At least 75,000 people were killed and up to three million others were left homeless in the bitter Himalayan winter, after a massive earthquake hit India and Pakistan in October.

Scale of Destruction Shocked the World

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, surveying the ruins in Indonesia's Aceh province - the area worst hit by the tsunami - said the scene was like nothing he had ever seen before. "I've been in war, I've been in a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations," he saqid, "but I have never seen anything like this."

The disasters underlined nature's unpredictability. They, like the paralysis that followed the devastation of the U.S. city of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in August, also illustrated how ill-prepared people and governments are to cope with crises of this magnitude.

The earthquake that triggered the tsunami the day after Christmas 2004, was centered just west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Despite that being a well-known earthquake region, Indian Ocean countries lacked a tsunami-warning system that might have saved many lives.

The Challenge of Disaster Response

The tsunami turned Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, into a wasteland, killing some 170,000 people and destroying buildings, roads, ports and communications facilities. Medical workers and local officials were either killed or displaced, paralyzing the local government's disaster response. Shell-shocked survivors took it upon themselves to help others, until local and international help arrived. But r elief workers were unable to reach remote villages for days.

When the 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Kashmir region 10 months later, critics said the Pakistani government was slow to mobilize life-saving aid and rescue equipment to hundreds of thousands of survivors.

The quake triggered landslides that cut off roads to remote mountain villages. Despite the heavy military presence in Kashmir, Pakistan did not have sufficient helicopters to fly out the wounded and bring in food, shelter and medicines.

World Differed in Response

The tsunami brought an unprecedented response from around the world. Within hours, private citizens and governments had pledged millions of dollars, and an urgent appeal by the United Nations' raised more than a billion dollars.

The response to the earthquake was not as forthcoming. The United Nations and other relief agencies had to issue appeal after appeal for money and tents capable of withstanding the severe winter temperatures of the region. Residents and relief workers say that, even now - two months later - provisions are still inadequate, and more lives at risk of being lost.

Still, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the world in general showed generosity when it was needed. "The past year has been a terrible one for victims of natural disasters," he said. "Yet, it also demonstrated our tremendous capacity for giving. Donor nations and their citizens responded generously to the Indian Ocean tsunami, and to hurricanes in Latin America."

Amid the Grief, Hope for Peace

Though a hoped-for reconciliation has yet to materialize between the government and ethnic Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, which lost 35,000 people to the tsunami, there was progress elsewhere.

The devastation of much of Aceh by the tsunami became the impetus for reconciliation between Acehnese rebels and the Indonesian government. Within months of the disaster, a peace agreement had been reached, ending 29 years of conflict.

After the Kashmir earthquake, rivals India and Pakistan agreed to open their heavily fortified border in the disputed region for the first time, in order to facilitate relief efforts in remote villages. Kashmir has been the cause of two wars between Indian and Pakistan, and continues to be the most contentious issue between them.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf says the devastating earthquake has helped unite the two countries. "Fleeting opportunities do not come every day," he said. "Therefore, let good, let success and let happiness emerge from the ruins of this catastrophe, especially for devastated people of Kashmir."

U.S. humanitarian assistance after the tsunami and South Asian earthquake improved Washington's image in the predominantly Muslim countries of Indonesia and Pakistan. The U.S. military was quick to send helicopters to Aceh, and U.S. army doctors and Pakistani extremist groups - some considered by Washington as terrorists - are working simultaneously in Kashmir to aid survivors.

Sadar Sikandar Hayat Khan is the highest-ranking official in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. He says the side-by-side work of the Americans and the extremists is notable. "This is the special instance where the rival groups are working in the same city," he said. "They are working for the same cause today."

Recovery Still Challenging

Recovery from the disasters has been difficult. In the Maldives, only two-thirds of those displaced by the tsunami had returned to their homes as of November. In Aceh, the government says around nine-thousand new homes have been built, only seven percent of the target.

On the plus side, a regional tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, plus new disaster reduction and preparedness programs, are now being planned or put into operation.

Reconstruction will take a long time, but relief workers and government officials are optimistic that the devastated regions will eventually emerge in better shape than before.

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