SE Asia Death Toll Tops 220,000

January 20, 2005

More than three weeks after the devastating tsunamis struck 12 countries bordering the Indian Ocean, the death toll continues to rise, as hope for the missing fades.

Indonesian officials announced that more than 166,000 people had now been confirmed dead in that country alone – 50,000 more than the previous total issued by the Health Ministry. The new figures put the total number of lives lost at over 220,000.

Most of the newly reported deaths in Indonesia were recorded in the Province of Aceh in Northern Sumatra, which was the closest land area to the undersea quake that caused the tsunamis. Authorities now estimate that 14 percent of the population probably perished as a result of the waves.

Delegates at the conference on disaster prevention currently taking place in Kobe, Japan have made installation of a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean a top priority. It’s estimated that many thousands of lives could have been saved, had such a system been in place when the waves hit.

According to a report from the BBC, UN agencies have said they were ready to start work immediately and that a basic system could be ready in 12-18 months. The warning system project will be led, in the initial stages, by the UN agency UNESCO, with millions of dollars already pledged by Japan, the European Union and others.

The plan calls for installation of high-tech buoys anchored to the ocean floor and linked to a regional communications center. The U.S., Germany and Australia have already offered their own technology, and Japan has agreed to provide some form of cover in the meantime with information from its own sensors.

Ultimately, however, any such system will be dependent on actions at the local level, i.e. communicating the warnings to the populations of isolated coastal communities. “Early warning systems will only succeed if the people most at risk who are central to the design of a system are able to receive and act upon the warnings,” the BBC quoted Ian Wilderspin, a representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

In related news the Indian government announced a 27 billion rupee ($628 million) aid package to help communities in the South of the country and the Andaman and Nicobar islands to rebuild, and to restore local economies, which are heavily dependent on fishing. More than 10,500 people died in the area and over 5,500 are still missing and presumed dead – almost all of them on the islands.

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