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Red Cross aid workers safe in Aceh but Australia needs greater response capacity

Tuesday March 29, 2005

Today's massive earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra is a timely and sobering reminder of the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions that Red Cross and Red Crescent aid workers in Aceh, seven of which are Australian, are constantly having to endure to get vital humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of people affected by last December's devastating quake and tsunami.

'Working in a disaster zone is dangerous, difficult and more often that not, very challenging,' said Robert Tickner, Secretary General - CEO of Australian Red Cross.

'But in Aceh and other tsunami devastated countries such as Sri Lanka our Aussie aid workers live cheek by jowl with the communities whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by last December's tsunami. Their commitment to help those in places like Aceh puts them in the crosshairs of another potential disaster. They know this and yet they do not waver from their task of helping those whose ability to help themselves was severely hampered by the events of December 26,' added Mr Tickner.

According to Reuters, the earthquake killed dozens of people and destroyed hundreds of homes on the Indonesian island of Nias. And even before today's earthquake Nias had been identified by Australian Red Cross as a priority for major infrastructure rebuilding. In partnership with another aid organisation, Red Cross plans to build up to 250 new houses on the island.

Meanwhile Red Cross is confident it has enough relief stock, vehicles and emergency staff on the ground in the affected areas to respond to the needs of the coastal communities affected by today's earthquake. At first light this morning a Red Cross helicopter and plane will assess the situation along the coast. 'At this time we are concerned about the coastal islands where initial reports say there has been some damage, injuries and possibly even some casualties,' Mr Tickner said.

'Today's quake is another timely reminder of how our immediate region is at a continued risk from natural disasters. It confirms my commitment to seek government and public support for the establishment of an Emergency Response Unit (ERU), to be placed on permanent standby in Darwin, allowing Red Cross to mount an immediate response to future emergencies of this kind in our region,' added Mr Tickner.

The concept of ERUs has been developed by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to enable rapid response to natural disasters as part of an integrated disaster management process. ERUs enable a coordinated response and they ensure quick and effective delivery of emergency aid. The ERU system is also responsive to meeting the specific challenges of each crisis. Today there are six types of ERUs - Basic Health Care, Logistics, Relief, Water and Sanitation, Referral (Field) Hospital and Telecommunications ERU. The first ERU was deployed in 1994, and since then they have become an essential part of the global Red Cross disaster response capability. In 2001 in Gujurat earthquake six ERUs were deployed within 48 hours.

'In the tsunami disaster, Red Cross deployed 18 ERUs in a number of affected countries. However, within the Asia Pacific region there is currently only one operational ERU, which is from Japanese Red Cross. Australian Red Cross has the expertise and knowledge to develop this type of a disaster response mechanism, and with sufficient support we will be able to contribute even more to alleviating the suffering of people affected by disasters in our region,' concluded Mr. Tickner.