UNICEF: Contaminated water puts tsunami survivors at grave risk of disease

As the death toll soared above 75,000, UNICEF warned today that, without immediate, wide-scale action to provide safe water in the communities hit by Sunday's massive ocean flooding following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunamis, millions of people will be at grave risk of waterborne disease. [NOTE: See bottom of article for information on how you can assist the relief effort.]...

NEW YORK, Dec. 29, 2004 (PRNewswire) -- As the death toll soared above 75,000, UNICEF warned today that, without immediate, wide-scale action to provide safe water in the communities hit by Sunday's massive ocean flooding following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunamis, millions of people will be at grave risk of waterborne disease.

It was projected the total death toll to the initial disaster would likely reach well over 100,000. Emergency mass graves were being dug to bury bodies that could contaminate water supplies further. With infrastructure for potable water and sanitation in a shambles following the earthquake and tsunamis that struck several countries in Southeast Asia, pools of water left over from floods continued to worry health agencies.

"Standing water can be just as deadly as moving water," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said Tuesday. "The floods have contaminated the water systems, leaving people with little choice but to use unclean surface water. Under these conditions people will be hard put to protect themselves from cholera, diarrhea and other deadly diseases."

Governments contributing to disaster relief had pledged more than $120 million by Dec. 29. That included: the United States, which raised its pledge to $35 million; Japan and the European Union pledged $30 million each; the United Kingdom pledged 15 million pounds (US$28.8 million), Australia more than tripled its pledge to A$27 million (US$20.8 million), Saudi Arabia pledged $10 million, Canada pledged $4 million, Germany pledged $2.7 million, and China pledged $2.6 million. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suggested debt forgiveness for countries hardest hit by the earthquake, which reportedly moved some land areas by 30 meters, and resulting tsunamis. In addition, Amazon.com reportedly initially received $1,300 a minute after it posted a link Dec. 28 on its popular website for donations for relief efforts -- more than 30,000 people had contributed over $1.6 million by today. Disaster experts predicted the effort would surpass any humanitarian response to date.

The World Health Organization reported that: "Besides the need for mass management of casualties in hospitals, WHO foresees the urgent need for reactivation and boosting the capacities of local systems for health care delivery. At short term, in a few days, additional threats to human life can be expected to arise from contaminated water sources. Strong coordination will be needed to make the most of local and national efforts and international good will."

Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India and Thailand have been affected, and also Malaysia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Indonesia reported Wednesday that its official death toll alone was approaching 30,000, half of that in the northern Aceh province, which was one of the worst areas hit by tsunamis after the offshore earthquakes.

Children, who make up at least one-third of the overall population in the worst-affected countries, are particularly vulnerable to waterborne diseases.

"Hundreds of thousands of children who survived the massive waves that destroyed their communities now risk getting seriously ill from something as simple as taking a drink of water," Bellamy said.

Securing safe water supplies and educating people about water and sanitation hygiene is a major component of all of UNICEF's tsunami relief efforts, now underway in the hardest-hit countries, Bellamy said.

Water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts to combat diarrhea were included in the first deliveries UNICEF made to hard-hit areas of Sri Lanka on Tuesday. They also make up the bulk of two separate UNICEF relief flights headed for Sri Lanka. A 45-ton shipment from UNICEF's global supply center in Copenhagen is carrying primarily water-related supplies but also includes emergency health kits, school supplies and recreation kits for children; this flight will land early Thursday. A shipment of 20 tons of tarpaulins and tents from Belgium is due to arrive in Sri Lanka late Wednesday.

In India, UNICEF has delivered an initial 50 water tanks to Kanchipuram in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the government has set up 200 relief sites in seven affected districts. Under the leadership of state and national authorities, UNICEF expects Wednesday to provide southern districts with hundreds of thousands of water purification tablets, an additional 1,550 community water tanks (500 liters each), 200,000 sachets of oral rehydration salts, medical supplies sufficient to serve 30 health centers, and 30,000 blankets.

"We don't know how many people might die in the next days and weeks from disease caused primarily by bad water and sanitation conditions," Bellamy said. "But without doubt we know people will fall to disease. That's why it is essential that the relief campaign be focused on providing safe water right now."

UNICEF assessment and relief efforts continue throughout the tsunami-affected region:
* In Thailand, UNICEF is assessing both immediate and long-term needs in the affected areas, which in addition to the tourist spots Pukhet and Krabi also include fishing communities along other areas of the coast which were completely destroyed. UNICEF is focusing on providing water, sanitation facilities and food for those in the affected areas, especially children, as well as addressing the longer-term needs for education, psychological support and replacing lost livelihood of entire communities.

* In Indonesia, some 500,000 people in the Aceh province have been directly affected, particularly in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, where houses have been destroyed and water, power and telecommunications disrupted. All but two of Banda Aceh's ambulances were destroyed. UNICEF is sending emergency health kits to help
200,000 people for two weeks.

* In Somalia, where hundreds of families have been left without shelter, food and clean drinking water, a UNICEF team assessing the affected areas with local authorities is delivering immediate assistance of oral rehydration salts, chlorine powder and essential drugs while arranging for increased supplies as needed. In addition to providing clean water and sanitation facilities, UNICEF will focus on emergency health care, nutritional needs, family relief kits and temporary shelters for the affected families.

About UNICEF
Founded in 1946, UNICEF helps save, protect and improve the lives of children around the world through immunization, education, health care, nutrition, clean water, and sanitation. UNICEF is non-partisan and its cooperation is free of discrimination. In everything it does, the most disadvantaged children and the countries in greatest need have priority.

HOW TO HELP
U.S. Fund for UNICEF - South Asia Tsunami Emergency Relief

To help support UNICEF's emergency relief efforts for the millions of people affected by the tsunamis in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India and the Maldives, please visit -- UNICEF: www.unicefusa.org or call 1-800-4UNICEF (86-4233).

You can also send a check to:

U.S. Fund for UNICEF
Attn. Tsunami Relief
333 E. 38th Street
New York, NY 10016

Contributions will provide lifesaving supplies to help ensure the survival and protection of the vulnerable children who have survived this disaster.
* Emergency health supplies and medicines.
* Oral rehydration salts to prevent diarrheal dehydration.
* Water purification tablets.
* High-protein biscuits to prevent malnutrition.
* Basic shelter materials for displaced families.

UNICEF is the world's lead agency dedicated to the health and safety of children in 158 countries and territories worldwide.

Other Emergency Relief Organizations
If you would care to assist in the humanitarian response to the disaster through another organization, feel free to contact the following:
-- United Nations ReliefWeb: www.reliefweb.int
-- American Red Cross: www.redcross.org or 1-800-HELP-NOW (435-7669)
-- Americares: www.americares.org or call AmeriCares directly at 1-800-486-HELP (4357)
-- CARE: www.care.org or 1-800-422-7385
-- Oxfam: www.oxfamamerica.org or 1-800-77-OXFAM (69326)
-- Save the Children: www.savethechildren.org or 1-800-728-3843

Although it does work for improved water quality in Asia, Africa and Latin America through its programs, Water For People, a Denver-based independent organization supported by various organizations and companies in the water industry, pointed out that it is not an emergency relief organization. Instead, it pointed people to another list of organizations found at the MSNBC website: Asia's Deadly Tsunami.

You can specify to direct your donations to Southeast Asia Earthquake/Tsunami Relief Effort, but remember that a number of other areas of the world also may continue to need assistance as resources are redirected to this region.

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