AS billions of dollars continue to pour into the countries devastated by the Asian tsunami two weeks ago, the pertinent question that is being asked now is whether the money is being well spent.
Some survivors of the world’s greatest natural disaster believe that it is not. There is no proper coordination and, hence, badly affected areas and isolated islands are not getting the emergency aid.
Their claims have been backed by an Australian family, who also escaped from the giant killer waves as they swept across the Indian Ocean near Indonesia to Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and the east coast of Africa.
Jan Alexander, who saw the 12m-high wall of water coming and ran for her life, is leading her family to join the relief efforts in Sri Lanka.
She fears that some survivors are still missing out on the aid while others are getting too much of “what’s available”.
“There is a real need for proper coordination,” she told an Australian TV programme last week.
Such grumbling is not really surprising in these circumstances. It can be expected when relief aid agencies are dealing with massive cohorts of about five million people who depend on the aid for their survival in widespread and inaccessible areas.
Food, drinking water, clothing and medical supplies can’t reach the survivors quickly enough since the catastrophe destroyed large areas and claimed more than 165,000 victims, two-thirds of whom were Indonesians mostly in Aceh.
If they are not rescued soon, many more will die either from starvation, thirst or diseases that are threatening to break out because of contaminated water and hundreds of decomposed bodies still to be recovered.
The complexity of the mammoth task in handling emergency aid for such a large group of people is difficult to understand unless one is directly involved.
The affected areas are still scattered with wreckage and debris. It is like a war zone. It is difficult to cut a path through what was once a holiday resort or village full of people.
The death toll of Australian tourists in the devastated holiday resorts is now unofficially 22, with 70 others still unaccounted for.
Rescuers find it almost impossible to reach the hungry and suffering survivors by road in damaged villages and remote areas. Only helicopters can help.
But there are not enough of them despite the aircraft brought in by Australia and the United States.
Australian doctor Alan Garner, who led the first foreign medical trauma team into Aceh, describes to an ABC television programme the state of those rescued from the horrific tragedy: “It’s a bit like they’ve been put through an enormous washing machine.
“They’ve been pummelled around in the water, agitated in the water that has lumps of wood, trees, sheets of corrugated iron. And the water itself is contaminated; it’s full of mud and sewage and everything else.
“So they’ve been rolled around in the debris, they’ve got lots of cuts, wounds and abrasions, and because of the contaminated water, they’re all infected. They’ve swallowed the water; the water’s gone into their lungs, into their eyes and ears, so we’re seeing a lot of pneumonia and ear infections as well.
“People are now dying of pneumonia eight or 10 days after the event.”
Dr Garner says the medical team has to open up the wounds, clean them and then close the wounds. There will be plastic surgery to be done in the next few months.
The medical team has also done a number of amputations because of the serious infections.
The major problem for relief agencies in the weeks and months to come, he says, is having to deal with an estimated 35,000 children in Aceh who have lost their parents and relatives in the tragedy.
At this stage, the medical team is trying to keep most of the survivors alive, some as young as three years old, with severe pneumonia and respiratory distress. They need to be on a ventilator in an intensive care unit but there is no such facility in the aftermath of the tsunami.
It’s frustrating and it’s taking a toll on the medical team, too.
People not affected by such a disaster cannot appreciate the severe mental stress suffered by the survivors and their rescuers.
But like all relief aid workers who are struggling to cope with the enormous task, the doctors will continue their attempts to save the lives of the survivors.
This is part of the response for immediate aid that Australia has contributed to Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, which are the worst-hit countries in the wake of the tsunami.
Australia has become the world’s biggest single contributor to the relief aid, donating more than A$1.145bil so far, of which A$1bil comes from the government, in addition to the A$60mil announced earlier. The rest is from the Australian public and private companies. Fund-raising is still being conducted by charitable organisations in Australia.
The A$1bil aid to help Indonesia rebuild itself from the devastation was announced just before Thursday’s summit meeting in Jakarta of world leaders on the best way of coordinating the relief aid.
The package is made up of equal parts in grant assistance and highly concessional funding for reconstruction to re-establish social and economic infrastructure in tsunami-affected areas, human resources development and rehabilitation.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will head a joint Australian-Indonesia commission to monitor how the money is being spent.
The spontaneous generosity has certainly brought Australia and Indonesia together, whatever their political differences may still be.
No one can say now that Australia does not care for its Asian neighbours.
As Prime Minister John Howard says: “It expresses the generosity and will of the Australian people.
“I am proud of the fact that my fellow countrymen and women have done the same thing. The response of Australians to this disaster has just been so overwhelming and so generous, so decent and so good that it makes you very proud indeed to be an Australian.”
Certainly, the aid has brought a new light, a new outlook on the relationship, particularly between Indonesia and Australia, overcoming the resentment that many Indonesians had on Australia’s intervention in East Timor which eventually became an independent country.
o Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )