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Red Cross: Information Vital to Disaster Relief

One of the world's largest relief agencies, the Red Cross, says information and the news media have become an important part of disaster response and relief.

The Red Cross's latest study on international disasters says information and the media are as vital for disaster victims as food, water, shelter and medicine.

Bekele Geleta is the Southeast Asia director of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"Collectively we could do better to save people's lives if we work together in collecting and relaying the right information at the right time and to the right people as well," he said.

The Red Cross World Disasters Report notes that during this year's hurricane season, early warnings in the United States and the Caribbean gave millions of people time to evacuate and probably saved thousands of lives.

However, it says that in the Indian Ocean region, the lack of an early warning system contributed significantly to more than 200,000 deaths from last December's earthquake and tsunami.

According to the report, 250,000 people died in more than 700 disasters last year - triple the disaster death toll the year before. Between 1994 and 2003, an average of 67,000 people died in disasters worldwide.

The report says information can also help reduce human suffering after a disaster by helping victims find food, shelter and medical treatment. An official who led Red Cross efforts in Indonesia after the tsunami, Peter Cameron, said satellite telephone calls helped reunite several thousand people in Aceh Province after they had been separated from their families by the disaster.

"Information does save lives. Information can reduce suffering and if we can act on information then it is a very positive force in disaster management," he said.

But he said better media coverage is needed for what he called the neglected disasters, such as the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and near-famine conditions in West Africa's Sahel due to drought and locusts.

"It's easy to focus on the big, spectacular, if you like. But these ongoing famines and other disasters are equally important," he said.

The Disasters Report concludes that good information is needed to ensure that relief aid is appropriate and targeted at the right areas. It urges relief agencies to listen to the victims as they plan relief and reconstruction programs. And noting there are tons of donated used clothing piled in warehouses in relief zones, it says better communication with donors can avoid deliveries of goods that are not needed.