Almost one month after a deadly tsunami struck the shores of a dozen Indian Ocean countries, estimates of the dead and injured are running as high as 290,000. The biggest relief operation ever mounted continues to feed and shelter the survivors, and major outbreaks of disease have been prevented, but relief officials say there is still much to be done.
Positive signs are beginning to emerge. In Indonesia's Aceh province, the region hardest hit by the tsunami, U.N. officials report the number of refugee camps has decreased by 75 percent during the past week.
Officials say people are moving from the camps to the homes of relatives, or back to what is left of their villages along the devastated West Coast of Sumatra.
One-hundred-thirty schools are scheduled to reopen Wednesday in Aceh, the one-month after the disaster. They will serve as many as possible of the 540,000 Acehnese children whose schools were damaged or destroyed. In Sri Lanka, which suffered second only to Indonesia, children began returning to school last week.
World Food Program Asian regional director Tony Banbury says relief workers are still supplying basic necessities to devastated communities, but governments and organizations are starting to think of restoring of homes and livelihoods.
"The focus is still on the emergency assistance, general distribution to anyone who has been affected without any conditions of any kind attached," he said. "But it's not too early to be thinking of the recovery phase."
Mr. Banbury says the WFP will be working with the governments of Indonesia and Sri Lanka to assess long-term needs. He estimates the transition to the recovery phase will take place during the next five to six months.
"During the recovery phase we need to target our assistance in a more refined manner to make sure that we do not create a dependency culture; we can also very importantly help with the restoration of livelihoods through food for work projects, for instance clearing cities, helping rebuild schools and homes and community centers," he said.
While countries like Thailand have begun to rebuild destroyed houses and businesses, the harder-hit regions are still struggling to find and bury the dead, and to clear the massive amounts of debris. The number of dead and missing in Aceh was put as high as 228,000 on Tuesday.
Louis Jorge Perez, the World Health Organization's Asian coordinator for tsunami relief, says the danger of epidemics has probably passed, thanks to the world's rapid response to the disaster, but he warns against complacency.
"Definitely we cannot lower our guard," he said. "We have to continue this as if we were still in the first few days of the emergency, because this is going to be a long rehabilitation process."
Thailand, which lost more than 5,000 people to the tsunami, saw at least another seven killed Tuesday, including four foreign tourists, when an overloaded boat heading to the holiday island of Koh Samui capsized.