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Tsunami Anniversary Special: 2 Years On
Bangkok (AFP) Dec 18, 2006
Squabbling And Inaction Beset Tsunami Warning System
Nearly two years after the tsunami, a regional warning system is beset by squabbling and inaction, officials and experts say, as individual countries instead scramble to implement their own schemes.
Thailand this month released a US-funded deep-sea warning buoy into the Indian Ocean, while Indonesia plans to install about 15 similar devices.
But persuading the counties to work together, overseen by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is proving trickier.
"(The IOC) keep talking, they keep discussing, they organise a meeting (but) there is no solid outcome, nothing is happening," said Smith Thammararoj, head of Thailand's National Disaster Warning Centre.
Nations around the Indian Ocean were taken completely unaware when an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia sent towering waves sweeping across the coastlines of 11 counties on December 26, 2004, killing about 220,000 people.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the catastrophe, affected countries and donors came up with a regional solution similar to the Pacific Warning System, which has its headquarters in Hawaii.
But two years have passed and the region still cannot decide which country will host the Indian Ocean regional warning centre, with India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia vying for the post.
"They still argue which country will be the best one," said Smith, adding that UN subsidies for the country that hosts the centre were proving an incentive.
Smith said that Thailand had installed 90 watch towers along the coast and a well-equipped national warning centre.
Indonesia, meanwhile, has tested an early warning system and plans to install up to 15 German-funded warning buoys and more than 100 seismographs by 2009.
But other countries are falling behind.
India is yet to deploy an early warning system -- but has said it hopes to have one up and running along its coast by September 2007.
Sri Lanka, where 31,000 people were killed, is also still without its own tsunami warning system -- although the newly established National Disaster Management System has set up direct links with the US Geological Survey to track earthquakes.
The original timescale for implementing the region-wide warning system was mid-2006, but that deadline has passed with much left to achieve, including the installation of 23 more deep-sea warning buoys in the Indian Ocean.
"They are much more prepared, sending messages to coastal areas when important information comes, but a lot more still needs to be done," said a US expert working in the field, who wished to remain anonymous.
He said that the IOC would grant the regional centre to the first country whose national centre meets their standards, but added that it would take years before any of them reached that stage. "It's still very political," he added.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation said in June that the regional warning system was running as scheduled, with a network of 26 national tsunami information centres set up around the Indian Ocean.
Source: Agence France-Presse
Two years after tsunami, Ani waits to go home
Except for a man hammering at a simple fence, there is silence now on Rose Lane where Supriani's house stood at Number 23, in Punge Jurong village, not far from the sea in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.
"This is our land," Supriani, 39, says on a return visit before plucking a long piece of grass from the brush that has taken over the property, and that of several neighbours whose homes have also disappeared.
The garrulous Supriani built the house with her husband Sumaryo, 39, when their daughter Yuni, now 14, was still young.
"That was the kitchen," she says pointing at some grass.
They also had a guestroom and bedroom "all for ourselves," she recalls, and the house was just a few minutes walk from the spot where she and Sumaryo made an adequate living selling pecel, a type of vegetable salad, from beside a main road.
Best of all, the home gave security for Yuni and the two other children, Erwin, 19, and Heru, seven.
"It was good. If we died, the children wouldn't have to go anywhere," Supriani says.
"It's all gone now."
The rubble has long been cleared and a first-time visitor to Banda Aceh now could not imagine the horror that befell this place on December 26, 2004. A wall of water 10 metres (33 feet) high roared ashore, wiping buildings from their foundations and turning the area into an impenetrable, jagged sea of debris littered with rotting bodies.
The tsunami left more than 168,000 dead or missing in Aceh, by far the greatest toll of any nation hit by the disaster.
Supriani was standing in front of a neighbour's house when people shouted that the water was coming.
"I didn't believe it because it wasn't raining," she says.
Yuni began pulling her away from the torrent but it swept them onto the second-floor of the silver-domed mosque which is still being repaired about 50 metres behind her land.
"In that street, only our family survived," she says. Twenty-seven members of their extended family did not.
Later that afternoon, they fled to Banda Aceh's grand Baiturrahman Mosque until a relative found them. Despite the stench on her body, Yuni was so traumatized she could not wash for two days, Supriani says.
Three days after the disaster they took a military transport plane to Jakarta and stayed with other relatives for a month before resuming their homeless life in Banda Aceh, Supriani says.
They stayed for one month with hundreds of other survivors on the grounds of the provincial parliament.
In April 2005 the family moved into Lhong Raya Barracks, and have been there ever since.
"It's not a house. Just a room," Supriani smiles. "We wanted to be here just a short time."
Authorities built the barracks to get people out of tents.
Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, director of the Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR), said nine barracks have already been closed but 13,400 families, or more than 46,000 people, remain in the communal housing. -- 'We can't sleep well here' -- At the Lhong Raya complex 37 flimsy pastel green plywood barracks, each with 12 rooms and metal roofs, have been erected outside a sports stadium.
Supriani sits on the narrow wooden deck outside Room 10, Barrack 10, trimming vegetables for the salad she will sell. A blue tarpaulin and laundry that hangs from the metal roof partially shield the deck from a hot morning sun.
Neighbours lean over the partition to add their comments as Supriani details their plight, making light of it with constant jokes and laughter.
Children wander in and out.
"Brother! Brother!" a young woman calls as a toddler scampers away.
Indonesian pop music drifts along the complex and Yuni washes bean sprouts in a black tub while oil crackles in a wok on the deck.
"It's dangerous," admits Supriani.
Her entire living space is smaller than one room in most people's houses.
Yuni sleeps in a space the size of a closet. Supriani and her husband have a slightly bigger area that they share with kitchen utensils behind a red curtain.
There is no room for the eldest boy Erwin, who stays with an uncle.
In front of the sleeping quarters is a narrow corridor for a stereo and the television donated by a relative. The floor gives way like a piece of rubber.
There is no bathroom, no kitchen and no running water.
"We often have skin problems," Supriani says.
"We can't sleep well here. Every night it's noisy."
Her sleep is further troubled by memories of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami.
The family's worries are mounting amid rumours the barracks will close, the water will be cut off, their rations of rice and other essentials will stop, and Sumaryo will lose his job as driver of a Red Cross water tanker.
"We are on edge because we were told that in December we must leave," Supriani says. "That's what we heard."
But leave for where?
Supriani says they would be happy to move into a transitional house, a 20-square metre (215 square feet) home made of pine-coloured New Zealand or Norwegian wood that rests on a metal frame. The transitional homes have just one room but are freestanding like a normal house. Dozens have been erected on the other side of the stadium at Lhong Raya.
"I really want a house like that... but I don't know where to find it," she says.
To her frustration, some transitional homes have gone up in her neighbourhood, while she remains stuck in the barracks.
"I'm just wondering why," Kuntoro says when told of her situation.
Nur Asia, 42, is a neighbour of Supriani's who says she spent eight months in a barracks before choosing to return to her land and live in a tent, and then a home-made shelter.
Six months ago she got a transitional home.
At the barracks, her mind always returned to her son Hendra, 23, a paramilitary police private who died trying to rescue her from the tsunami.
"It's better here," she says, sitting in her doorway.
John Sparrow, spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said the transitional housing program was designed to get 67,500 people out of tents and into alternate accommodation.
He said more than 15,000 units have been built or are under construction, including 124 delivered in June to Supriani's neighbourhood. They were not intended for people in barracks, Sparrow said.
"It may be the case that the lady in the barracks has been assigned a permanent house and the permanent house hasn't been built yet," he said.
"I am confused," Supriani said.
Nobody will be forced out of the barracks, and there should be no difficulty building houses for property owners like Supriani, Kuntoro said The difficulty has been to house the 3,000 barracks families who rented their homes and have no land to return to, he said. A programme to address their housing needs will begin in January, and "God willing" everyone should be in a transitional shelter by the middle of next year, Kuntoro said.
"It's like a football. We're told to go here, go there," Supriani's husband Sumaryo says quietly, thoughtfully, while smoking a cigarette beneath a wooden clock on the wall inside his barracks room. "We wait and wait."
Source: Agence France-Presse
Corruption swallows aid as Sri Lanka marks tsunami anniversary
President Mahinda Rajapakse admitted a year ago the country had failed to do enough to help the victims of the towering waves, but thousands of survivors still live in "tent villages" along the coast.
Sri Lanka, one of the worst hit by the December 2004 Asian tsunami, lost an estimated 31,000 people while another million were left homeless, but the island also attracted 3.2 billion dollars in foreign aid pledges.
Out of the promised aid, it was not clear how much was received, but the state auditor general in September 2005 noted out of 1.16 billion dollars committed, only 13.5 percent had actually been spent.
Since then, there has been no fresh government audit.
Whistle-blowers believe that only a fraction of the aid actually went to the real victims and in the absence of proper account-keeping, it has been virtually impossible to track down what happened to the cash.
Official figures are often contradictory, but even the state admits only about half of the estimated 100,000 damaged or destroyed homes have been rebuilt as the country readies to mark the tragedy's second anniversary.
"God only knows if the money had been spent on tsunami victims or anybody else," says J. C. Weliamuna, Sri Lanka's executive director of the Transparency International, a global anti-corruption group.
"The government is now accusing non-governmental organisations for the slow progress and it's like the pot calling the kettle black," he said, adding there had been huge corruption in delivering aid.
He said both the state and the local and international charities, numbering nearly 400, were flooded with donations and they were overwhelmed by the unprecedented funding.
Weliamuna said many NGOs wasted the money.
Aid workers paid themselves three times what their counterparts were getting in Sri Lanka's better-paid private sector and lavished on sports utility vehicles and homes in the best areas of the country, according to officials.
"We know that extremely high salaries, several times the going rate, had been paid," Weliamuna said. "It was even worse when it came to rents and raw materials and that is partly because of the sudden surge in demand."
Reconstruction in the worst affected area of the island's north-east suffered a double blow with the escalation of fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels since early this year.
Much of the damage was in the northern and eastern regions, some of which are controlled by Tiger rebels. Efforts by peacebrokers to get Colombo and the Tigers to work together last year ended in failure, leading the way for more bloodshed.
The government's relief coordinating agency, the RADA (Reconstruction and Development Agency) said in a mid-year report that fighting in the region posed a problem, but called for speedy work at least in other areas.
"The recovery process is making positive progress, but the complex security situation in the North-East may reduce the impact of ongoing interventions," RADA said.
"As we progress, additional focus and concentration are needed for targeting legitimate beneficiaries, eliminating duplication, promoting beneficiary participation and empowerment, and ensuring accountability."
Graft busters say it is accountability that is lacking in the entire recovery effort and even some of the well established international organisations often overlooked good accounting practices.
Out of 70 organisations handling large-scale tsunami relief projects, only six responded to a call for a "value-for-money" audit commissioned by Transparency International.
The six included Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Norwegian and Swedish charity FORUT while several others flatly refused to be audited or simply ignored the call for accountability.
Rukshana Nanayakkara, who conducted the audit, said they were unable to quantify corruption or wastage because proper documentation had not been maintained.
"Some who were not even affected by the tsunami got houses," Nanayakkara said. "Some got two or three boats while others did not get any. They put too much emphasis on urgency and did not adhere to accounting standards."
The tsunami in many ways was a blessing in disguise for the government. The inflow of aid saw the local currency appreciate by over five percent while the state enjoyed both debt forgiveness and a moratorium on repayments.
This year, there are no ceremonies to remember the tsunami dead and the destitute, but instead the government has named December 26 National Safety Day.
Source: Agence France-Presse
Thai beaches full two years after tsunami, as tourists try to forget
The "tsunami-survivor" T-shirts go unworn, and even the tasteful memorials are apparently being ignored by visitors who want to forget about the waves which claimed 5,400 lives in Thailand, roughly half of whom were tourists.
"They are either respectful, they don't care, or they just want to get on that beach and get into that pina colada," says Gregory Anderson, general manager of Le Meridien's resort in Khao Lak.
Tourist arrivals are now almost back to pre-tsunami levels after a dismal couple of years following the December 26, 2004 disaster, which ravaged the idyllic beaches and resorts in Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga provinces.
At Le Meridien, where the waves killed seven guests and inflicted 18 million dollars worth of damage, sales have exceeded expectations.
"Profitability is up by 22 percent on what it was before the tsunami," Anderson tells AFP.
But while some large hotels have made a spectacular recovery, buoyed by sophisticated marketing campaigns and discounted rooms, smaller business owners -- many of whom lost more than just money -- are struggling.
Prateep Potsakul, 32, and his sister Paongping Pengtny, 36, run clothing stalls on Phuket's busy Patong beach. On the day of the tsunami, Prateep recalls running into the hills and leaving everything behind.
"The stall, everything was gone," he says, looking out at the beach where jet skis now zip past and rows of deckchairs accommodate tanning tourists.
Prateep says he had to borrow money from the bank to try and rebuild his business. But he tries not to dwell on the money because his sister Paongping's six-year-old son was killed in the tsunami.
"I just lost my shop," he says. "She lost her shop, her boy, her house. Sometimes she is crazy and she cries."
But prospects may be looking up for Prateep and Paongping. Think-tank Kasikorn Research estimates that tourism arrivals in Phuket will rise 87 percent to 4.7 million this year, and predicts they will rise again to 5.2 million in 2007.
Some tourists like Ellis Henriksen, a 61-year-old retiree from Denmark, come to Phuket because they want to help the community.
"The rebuilding has been very, very quick. I don't know where the money came from because when I talk to people they haven't got anything," he said.
"Maybe the money has gone here instead of to the people," he says, gesturing to a newly-built beachfront plaza.
As holidaymakers return, Thailand's tourism board and local organisations are trying to make sure the tragedy does not go unmarked.
At Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village devastated by the tsunami, a boat that was carried by the force of the waves remains the centre of the village to remind people about the power of nature.
However the group of teenagers lounging outside say that tourists hardly stop by to see the stranded vessel.
Elsewhere in the village, a tsunami memorial walk sits by the ocean. On one side of the walkway is a wall with the names and nationalities of those killed, while on the other side a stone wave appears to be claiming the victims.
A handful of Christian missionaries who live in Ban Nam Khem walk slowly past the dried roses and faded photographs, but there are no tourists to be seen.
Samaporn Petchkleang, 33, owns a restaurant by the memorial. She is ready for curious visitors, and has six books of photos taken days after the tsunami and filled with images of corpses and destroyed houses.
But no one is coming, and she says she is struggling to pay back a loan she took out to rebuild her business.
"Last year I lost a lot of money," she says. "This year I will try again, but if it is the same I will have to stop."
Across the region, tourists and local business owners see a fine line between making the tragedy and cashing in on it, and are unimpressed with the "tsunami survivor" T-shirts or the club nights named after the disaster.
"It is not good to make money from it," Eva Eriksson, a 45-year-old tourist from Sweden, says as she stops by the tsunami memorial garden in Phuket.
Le Meridien's Anderson does not begrudge those who seek out tsunami sights.
"It is not a morbid thing, it's just curiosity," he says. "As much as you go to Naples you're probably going to check out Pompei."
However, he does not want to see the place turned into a tourist attraction.
"It's not very respectful and Khao Lak doesn't need it," he says.
Source: Agence France-Presse
United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission
Bring Order To A World Of Disasters
Clooney expands Darfur effort
United Nations (UPI) Dec 15, 2006
The actor George Clooney has stepped up his efforts on behalf of people in the violence-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, traveling to China and Egypt and meeting Friday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at U.N. World Headquarters in New York.
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