- Jul 4, 2004
I bet the President is praying for them though.UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The United Nations' emergency relief head called the tsunamis that devastated large parts of southern Asia "unprecedented," and warned Monday that it may be weeks before the full effects are known.
The tsunamis were "not the biggest in recorded history, but the effects may be the biggest ever because many more people live in exposed areas than ever before," said Jan Egeland, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.
With tens of thousands dead, many missing and millions displaced, still more serious problems lie ahead, Egeland said, including widespread illnesses. And it could take years to rebuild places that were wiped out, he said.
"A lot of airplanes are already being loaded. Some are already airborne and going to the hardest-hit countries, like Sri Lanka," he said Monday afternoon, adding that experts had already arrived in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. (Full story)
"An enormous relief effort is on its way."
The United Nations has been unable to reach some of its staff in affected areas, including people in Sumatra and Aceh, Egeland said. "When we do not hear from them we are afraid of what has happened."
In a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, Egeland called for a major international response -- and went so far as to call the U.S. government and others "stingy" on foreign aid in general.
"If, actually, the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the gross national income, I think that is stingy, really," he said. "I don't think that is very generous."
The U.S. government expects to spend $15 million in its initial response to the disaster, the State Department said Monday. The United States' overall foreign aid commitment is around 0.2 percent of its gross national product. (Full story)
The Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, in an April report to lawmakers, said total foreign assistance -- excluding the costs of reconstruction in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion -- was larger in the 2003 and 2004 budgets than in any two-year period since the mid-1980s.
"The 0.2 percent of U.S. gross national product represented by foreign aid obligations the past two years, however, is among the smallest amounts in the last half-century. The United States is the largest international economic aid donor in dollar terms but is the smallest contributor among the major donor governments when calculated as a percent of gross national income," said the report, which is posted on the U.S. State Department's Web site.
Egeland said that in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, politicians 'believe that they are burdening the taxpayers too much and that the taxpayers want to give less. That's not true. They want to give more."
At a White House briefing Monday in Crawford, Texas, CNN asked spokesman Trent Duffy about the "stingy" remark. He said he thinks the United States is "the largest contributor to international relief and aid efforts not only through the government, but through charitable organizations. The American people are very giving, so we'll continue to be that and we'll be a leading partner in this effort that lies ahead."
Egeland, at the U.N. news conference, said the cost of the devastation will "probably be many billions of dollars. However, we cannot fathom the cost of these poor societies and the nameless fishermen and fishing villages that have just been wiped out."
Most of those who lost their livelihoods have no financial reserves, he said.
"I think an unprecedented disaster like this one should lead to unprecedented generosity from countries, that should be new and additional funds."
Egeland complained that international responses in the wake of major disasters are often overestimated.
"We need rich countries, rich individuals, even only those of us who are reasonably affluent to respond generously. Here we are facing people who have lost everything. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost everything. Millions of people are now living in the worst possible hazards of having polluted drinking water, no sanitation, no health services," he said, adding that the conditions are sure to lead to disease.
"The important thing is that we give and that we as citizens also demand that our countries give generously to those who have been so hard hit."
The region had no warning system for tsunamis. Egeland said he had spoken with leaders in the region about preparing for natural disaster, but those talks focused on hurricanes. (Full story)
Asked whether one must be built, he said, "I think, indeed, it must happen."
"The problem with the tsunami is that it takes hours or minutes for this wall of water to come, and there's just very, very little time," he said.
The tsunamis were triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, and Egeland said the quake struck less than an hour before Sumatra was hit by the waves. (Explainer: Tsunami and earthquake facts)
"This is something we have to look into," he said. "I think it would be a massive undertaking to actually have a full-fledged tsunami warning system that would really be effective in many of these places."