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Press conference by Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes

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Rescue efforts were winding down and emergency relief getting into full gear in response to the successive natural disasters that recently hit Asia and the Pacific, John Holmes, Emergency Relief Coordinator, told correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon.

"It's a very bad time for this region, with different disasters, not linked to each other, but coming together in this tragic way," said Mr. Holmes at a press conference organized to brief correspondents on the $74 million flash appeal for the Philippines, where some 4 million people had been affected by Tropical Storm Ketsana, Typhoon Parma and related flooding.

Mr. Holmes, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, also provided updates on the major earthquake in Western Sumatra, the tsunami that washed over Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga, as well as a smaller earthquake in Bhutan and widespread flooding in India.

In regard to the appeal for the Philippines, launched in Geneva today, he said it was the largest flash appeal ever made for that country, which was frequently beset by natural disasters. Funding was being requested for 13 aid sectors, he explained, including food, water, sanitation, and emergency health and shelter. He had already authorized a $7 million grant from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to kick start the international efforts.

Up to $10 million of the appeal had already been received from donors, he said, and, in addition, some countries were providing bilateral assistance -- including the United States. He specified that the appeal was for emergency relief and early recovery, covering the needs of around 1 million people for three months, and it would be reviewed after 30 days to see if it still corresponded with reality.

The latest toll from the disaster included almost 300 people killed, some 336,000 displaced in evacuation centres, around 40 people missing and almost 40,000 homes destroyed or badly damaged. The storm had also caused death and destruction in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, but the degree was still being assessed and those countries had not yet requested United Nations assistance, although that was not ruled out in the future.

He said that heavy rains still continued in some areas and often hampered the humanitarian response, adding that Typhoon Parma had not been as damaging as was feared last week; it changed course and hit the north of the Philippines, but not the badly flooded areas such as Manila. There was a serious risk of disease in those areas, and there was much debris and damaged infrastructure.

On the earthquake in Indonesia's Western Sumatra, he said the latest official toll was 608 dead, which was likely to rise further as bodies were dug out, and teams reached inaccessible villages. Some 90,000 houses had been destroyed or severely damaged, with much key infrastructure lost.

A large number of search and rescue teams were working there, but the focus was moving to emergency relief, although heavy rains were causing landslides in affected areas, making operations even more difficult. The United Nations was working with the Government on planning next steps, while agencies of the Organization, non-governmental groups and international partners were helping on the ground.

In regard to the Pacific tsunami, he said that the official death toll had reached 137 in Samoa with 310 injured and 3,200 homeless. Much of the destruction was concentrated on Samoa's southern coast of Upalu, where 20 out of 40 villages had been destroyed and the Government estimated $150 million in damage. As in the other situations, humanitarian workers were now shifting from rescue operations to emergency relief and early recovery planning.

Turning briefly to the 21 September earthquake in Bhutan, he said that 12 people had been killed and more than 1,000 homes and public building destroyed. Although the death toll was less than that of the other disasters being discussed, he called the event a major catastrophe for such a small, landlocked developing country, particularly as winter approached. He said that an assessment team was on the ground and the results would be known in a few days.

On the Indian floods, he said that some 2 to 3 million people had been affected, and there was a high toll of death and destruction. The United Nations had not been asked to deal with the situation, because, he surmised, the country had its own resources and was in the habit of dealing with such matters themselves, and they were good at it.

Asked to assess the national response to the disasters, he said that Indonesia had good structures in place, because of previous events, and the Philippines was also used to dealing with them. Part of the effort of "building resilience" was to encourage better preparation, he added, saying that the effort had to be stepped up, with the possible increase of extreme weather predicted with global warming.

Asked about the situation in Yemen on the eve of his departure there, he said that his main focus was on how to ensure better access for humanitarian workers to people trapped by hostilities. He wanted to discuss it with the Government, but the cooperation of the rebels was needed as well. He added that there was good cooperation from Saudi Arabia in bringing aid across the northern border.

In regard to flooding in displaced person camps in Sri Lanka, he said his pleas to the Government were to not only improve conditions, but to get as many people out of the camps concerned as possible before the monsoon rains.

At this afternoon's press conference, Mr. Holmes also voiced his condemnation of what he called the murderous attack on the World Food Programme facility in Pakistan, stressing that the five staff members that were killed were only helping the people of Pakistan and had no political or religious agenda.

He said he hoped it would not affect aid to displaced persons in Pakistan, pointing out that, although United Nations facilities were closed, critical work had not ceased, and people were working from home. "We refuse to be deterred by these kind of attacks", he said, acknowledging, however, that risks to staff had to be taken into account and minimized through a full security review.

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