(IPS) -- The biggest humanitarian relief operation the world has ever seen is underway in Asia, as international aid agencies supported by foreign troops race to provide emergency help in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and the huge tsunamis it unleashed.
As the number of dead continue to increase by the hour, foreign governments, international aid agencies and international organizations have dispatched personnel, medical supplies and survival kits to help tens of thousands of people in the region.
Japan sent a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) convoy, including a helicopter, to waters off Thailand to help search for missing people following the Dec. 26 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in the Southeast and South Asian region.
The Japan Defense Agency did not specify how long the mission will last, but said the ships and their 580 MSDF crew are expected to begin activities in the devastated areas on Wednesday.
These 580 MSDF will also be joining 15,000 U.S. troops on two flotillas of warships that the Pentagon has deployed to the region -- one from Guam, in the Pacific and the other from Hong Kong.
The United States has more than doubled its emergency funds to the region to $35 million s to help aid agencies and governments cope with the catastrophe still unfolding.
With deadly diseases now stalking the survivors of the massive Asian tsunami, UN agencies are turning to the urgent task of providing clean drinking water and health care for millions of people.
"In the coming days, additional threats to human life such as diarrhoeal diseases and acute respiratory infections can be expected to arise from contaminated water sources,' the World Health Organization (WHO) said of the disaster which struck 10 nations around the Indian Ocean.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) on Tuesday committed up to one million U.S. dollars and additional staff for rapid health assessments, hygiene needs and health supplies, including water purification tablets. The agency urged that the special needs of women and girls be factored into all short- and medium-term relief planning,
"While the magnitude of this disaster may be unprecedented, we already know from our experience in previous crises -- such as last year's earthquake in Bam, Iran, and the hurricanes that struck the Caribbean earlier this year -- that women and girls will be hit especially hard,' UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid said in a statement.
For Bekele Geleta, an Ethiopian heading the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in South-east Asia, responding to tragedies is part and parcel of his daily working life.
But never has he seen such massive devastation, like that caused by Sunday's tsunami. "The enormity of the disaster is just unbelievable,' Geleta told IPS. "Never in my working career with IFRC have I seen anything like this.'
The IFRC issued a flash appeal on Sunday for 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.57 million) for survivors following the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean off Indonesia's Sumatra island.
"But we realize there is a big gap between the funds sought in the appeal and the actual amount needed on the ground, after we made our emergency assessments,' said Geleta. "I would not be surprized if Geneva increased the flash appeal by three times or more.'
In a phone interview, Carolyn Green, a spokeswoman for the British aid agency Oxfam, said: "We're looking at 10 countries across two different continents. It's very difficult to get supplies to all those in need. Some of them are in very remote towns."
Oxfam has sent relief supplies to help 175,000 people across Indonesia and Sri Lanka and dispatched 27 tons of water and sanitation equipment. -- Relief supplies are now coming in,' added Green.
For UNICEF Australia, the provision of safe drinking water is crucial at this juncture.
"Local water supplies are contaminated and damaged. Without safe water, people will start drinking from unclean sources and that will lead to disease,' said Carolyn Hardy, the chief executive of UNICEF Australia, in a phone interview.
From New York, UNICEF issued a statement Wednesday warning that millions of people were at risk of water-borne diseases without immediate wide-scale action to provide safe water in affected communities.
'The floods have contaminated water systems, leaving people with little choice but to use unclean water. Under these conditions, people will be hard put to protect themselves from cholera, diarrhoea and other deadly diseases," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said.
So far UNICEF has provided shelter supplies, providing more than 100,000 blankets and sleeping mats, shelter equipment such as tents, hundreds of thousands of water purification tablets, thousands of community water tanks of 500 litres each, hundreds of thousands of sachets of oral rehydration salts for sick children, and medical supplies to places like Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Somalia.
"For the first couple of days, the relief efforts here have focused on search and rescue. Now the relief efforts are focusing on those who have survived,' said a local aid worker.
Many children were separated from their parents when the waves struck. Hospitals have posted their pictures on the Internet in an attempt to find their families. It has drawn thousands of locals and foreign tourists to the hospitals, desperate to be united with their loved ones.
The Thai government has appealed to the international community for forensic equipment to help identify the victims and refrigerated mortuaries to store the corpses while the identification process takes place.
Airlines in Thailand have arranged flights back to the capital, are allowing relatives to go and find missing kin. Travel associations are pitching in by issuing updates and missing-persons bulletins, including on the Internet, on the situation in tsunami-hit areas.
In the meantime, while relief supplies are being flown in the region, the mass evacuation of tourists continues in the opposite direction. Swedish holidaymakers appear to be among the worst affected.
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