As the world rallied to the cause of the tsunami victims, Kofi Annan called on rich nations yesterday to make good their pledges of $4bn (£2.2bn) quickly for a massive relief effort.
"We have a duty to the survivors, to prevent the tsunami from being followed by a second wave of death," the UN secretary general told the emergency conference of world leaders in Jakarta, stressing the risk of disease and starvation.
The one-day meeting was the first major international attempt to co-ordinate the aid effort pouring into south Asia, where the tsunami of 26 December killed at least 150,000 people - two thirds of them in Indonesia alone.
As a first step, the UN is putting together a $1bn package to ensure there is no repeat of earlier failures to deliver promised aid after natural disasters - most notably in the case of the Bam earthquake in Iran a year ago.
A similar argument was made by Britain's representative, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. The UK, he said, had proposed a "friends of the secretary general group" to work in support of Mr Annan's efforts. "Too often in the past, the whole from donations of this kind has equalled less than the sum of the parts," he added. "We can't have that happen again."
For now at least, the participants seem determined to make sure that this relief effort lives up to its advance billing and that national rivalries are put to one side.
Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, stunned by what he had seen on a brief visit to the most afflicted areas of northern Sumatra, confirmed yesterday that America had scrapped its plan for a "core coalition" of the US, India, Australia and Japan. Instead it would make its aid part of the overall relief effort under the umbrella of the UN.
The delegates, from more than 20 countries, agreed to set up a tsunami advance warning system for the Indian Ocean, akin to the one that exists already for the Pacific. Surakiart Sathirathaim, Thailand's Foreign Minister, said: "No longer must we leave ourselves so vulnerable and so exposed. It is well known that even 10 minutes' advance warning can save hundreds of lives."
Japan, which has some of the world's most sophisticated such warning systems, is expected to provide much of the technical expertise.
Divisions remained, however, over proposals backed by Britain and other countries for a freeze on foreign debt repayments by countries hit by the catastrophe. Some say that direct aid would be more effective. Others argue that if the tsunami-affected countries benefit, then so should even poorer countries in Africa.
But tempers were rising in the north-western tip of Indonesia, which took the main brunt of the tsunami, and where there is still no hard information on the fate of at least 12 villages south of the stricken town of Meulaboh on Sumatra's west coast.
US helicopters have been dropping food and water in the villages, as well as others on the west coast. But despite high-level UN requests to the Americans, and a personal plea by the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, no teams have been allowed to land to make assessments.
Michael Elmquist, the highest UN official in the province, made his anger clear at a press conference in Banda Aceh last night. "We would liked to have had better discussions with the Americans at an earlier stage on how best to use their helicopters, so as not only to deliver relatively small amounts of food but also to provide vital information about conditions on the ground," he said.
"We were told," Mr Elmquist went on, "that the Americans would only take orders from the Indonesian military. That's fine with us, and yesterday General Bambang asked for the assessment to be done.''
Yet it never happened. A senior Indonesian official said he was sure the assessments would begin today. "It's only 24 hours, no big deal," he said.
The American helicopters have avoided landing in the villages, hovering a few feet above the ground and throwing supplies out of the door.
The head of a European non-governmental organisation working in Banda Aceh pointed out that assessment is the top priority. "You might see that a village is destroyed and jump to the conclusion that the first need is shelter. But the assessment might find that everyone's moved in with their relatives, so what is really needed first is food, because every household has far more mouths to feed."
Mr Annan is expected to arrive in Banda Aceh this morning to view the worst-hit areas of the coast from the air for himself. He has ruled out giving a press conference in the town, Mr Elmquist said, "because he doesn't want the airport to be shut for two hours on his account" - as happened when Mr Powell came to the town on Wednesday.Reuse content