The humanitarian hammer weighs heavy in Asia-Pacific

4 October, 2009 | Conflict & Emergencies
Residents braving the biggest disaster to hit the Philippines this year. Credit: Danny Victoriano
Residents braving the biggest disaster to hit the Philippines this year. Credit: Danny Victoriano

“Clean water is urgently needed." says Inel Rosnelli. As she queues up with a line for clean water at a neighbours well in quake hit Padang on the island of Sumatra. "The only other alternative is to get water from leaking pipes. Houses have been destroyed and people need tents and tarpaulin, as they don’t have any shelter.”

Besides looking after her family Inel has also been looking after many others. Only hours after the quake struck she was distributing aid, as Oxfam had stock piled in the city for such events. Those stocks are now exhausted and she and the local aid organisation are desperate for more.

Aid is starting to arrive. Oxfam is flying in three water purification plants that will provide enough clean water for more than 40,000 people and it will start tankering water today (Sunday). An assessment team arrived yesterday to see where best they can help and more team are on the way.

But it is not only water that is needed. In some areas food is also in short supply and what food is available is soaring in price, along with the cost of the fuel to cook the food on. The petrol stations where paraffin is sold are the scenes of long queues of plastic jerry cans left there by people desperate to buy cooking fuel. Rice - the staple food - must be cooked.

Driving through Padang at night is an erie journey. Most of the city is dark as the electricity supply is down in certain areas. But in some places the area is bathed in light from arc lights. These are the places the search and rescue teams are working round the clock trying desperately to find the living trapped in the rubble of broken buildings. Time is running out to save those trapped. More search and rescue teams are arriving and so are teams of aid workers to supplement the initial work Inel and her colleagues did in the first hours.

And as new information starts to emerge about the terrible extent of the damage in outer lying areas the challenge for the aid effort will be the logistical nightmare it will face with road swept aside by landslides.

The aid effort is beginning to gear up but the aid system is facing one of its worst weeks as millions of people faced the weight of four consecutive days of humanitarian hammer blows.

On Monday our TV screens were showing the devastation of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, drowning in the aftermath of a typhoon. The next day Oxfam launched an appeal for 23 million people in East Africa suffering from an extensive drought made worse by conflict. On Wednesday a tsunami hit the Pacific Samoan islands and washed away everything that was in its way. On Thursday the typhoon that hit Manila slammed into Vietnam and then moved on to Laos and Cambodia. Then on the same day a massive earthquake shook the Indonesian city of Padang to its foundations, burying thousands under tonnes of rubble and affecting hundreds of thousands more.

In all my years of working in the aid world, starting in 1978 in Indonesia, I have never witnessed such a rapid and relentless series of crises. There have been bigger storms, greater tremors, grimmer death tolls but rarely have them come in quick succession.

The people who have been buffeted by this week’s shocks need our help. The people like Inel who were the first to help need it too.

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