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Asia: With Tsunami Death Count Rising, Aid Agencies Struggle To Help Survivors

Damage from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia Two days after massive waves called tsunamis struck coastal villages bordering the Indian Ocean, the death count is approaching 60,000. The disaster poses a staggering challenge for aid agencies racing to deliver food and fresh water to the region. The United Nations has warned that survivors face their greatest danger in the days ahead, as contaminated drinking water and putrefying bodies could cause epidemics of intestinal and lung infections.

Prague, 28 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Countries from Indonesia to Sri Lanka are continuing to count their dead.

And the numbers are expected to grow by the thousands, as the bodies are recovered of people killed during the 26 December massive earthquake and the deadly tsunamis that followed.

Vella, a 42-year-old widow in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, said it took less than 60 seconds for the powerful waves to sweep away three generations of her family. "I lost my mother, grandmother, and grandson in this. My three houses have been swallowed by the wave," she said. "Everything was taken in by the sea."

But even as she grieves for her lost loved ones, Vella -- and hundreds of thousands like her -- must begin a new fight, for survival.

Relief workers and emergency aid are flowing into South Asia, trying to prevent a second catastrophe of starvation and disease.

It is a staggering task in the aftermath of a disaster that has encompassed such a large area, and so many countries -- most immediately, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia, the Maldives, and Malaysia.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says the cost of the devastation is expected to be in the billions of dollars.

Arjun Katoch, who heads OCHA's disaster assessment and coordination system, spoke to RFE/RL from Geneva. "I would say as far as natural disasters are concerned, this will probably be the largest aid-assistance effort that the United Nations has launched in a couple of decades at least, if not ever," he said.

The United Nations says hundreds of relief planes packed with emergency medical and housing supplies are due to arrive in the region by 30 December. Offers of aid and support came from the United States, Japan, Russia, and the European Union, as well as international bodies like the Red Cross and the World Health Organization.

OCHA estimates hundreds of thousands of people are facing extreme deprivation in the wake of the tsunamis. The country hardest hit by the disaster, Sri Lanka, may have as many as 1 million people facing hunger and disease. At least 18,000 people are reported to have died in Sri Lanka.

Aid agencies are working to provide survivors with basic first aid, food, and shelter. But the highest priority, Katoch said, is clean drinking water. "In this kind of a disaster, in which seawater floods coastal areas and villages, normally the most important need is fresh, clear drinking water," he said. "Because wells, which are the usual form of getting water in this region, would be flooded with seawater and contaminated. And until they're clean, drinking water is always the biggest need."

The staggering number of corpses also poses a serious health challenge. Despite measures to bury as many bodies as quickly as possible, South Asia, with its tropical climate, is facing a dilemma as bodies begin to putrefy.

Some health experts have warned that if proper sanitation is not quickly restored in the disaster zone, disease could ultimately claim more lives than the tsunamis themselves. The health risks are especially high for children, who are often more vulnerable to disease than adults.

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has already sent medical staff and relief materials to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, and Malaysia.

Koen Henckaerts, MSF's director of operations, speaking by telephone from Brussels, said clean drinking water is needed to prevent the onset of intestinal and other diseases. "So the first health risk, of course, is diarrhea, because there is no clean water anymore. So you can also have cholera epidemics. And then in the second stage, after a while, because of all the water, you will have the breeding of mosquitoes. So you will also have outbreaks of malaria, and also -- in this region -- [outbreaks of] dengue [hemorrhagic fever]. It's now the dengue season, which can have serious consequences for the population," Henckaerts told RFE/RL.

The death toll from both the tsunamis and any epidemics that follow are especially high because many countries in the region have experienced an unprecedented population explosion over the past half-century.

The region's endemic poverty has also hampered relief efforts. India is the only country struck by the tsunamis with the resources to provide its own emergency support.