The need for an international disaster plan is now an urgent imperative

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The seventh day since the tsunami ravaged the Indian Ocean rim, claiming so very many lives, and the international relief effort is only now, all too haltingly, getting underway. The desperately slow arrival of aid in the stricken region is hard to credit, given the matter of moments in which pictures can be received across the globe and the matter of hours in which first-world survivors can be evacuated to safety.

The seventh day since the tsunami ravaged the Indian Ocean rim, claiming so very many lives, and the international relief effort is only now, all too haltingly, getting underway. The desperately slow arrival of aid in the stricken region is hard to credit, given the matter of moments in which pictures can be received across the globe and the matter of hours in which first-world survivors can be evacuated to safety.

Nor can the tardiness, at this stage at least, be explained by want of money. In Britain alone, £45m has been raised by an alliance of charities in just two days, shaming the Government into multiplying its original commitment by 50. The story of private and civic generosity in the face of this epic human catastrophe has been repeated across much of Europe and the United States. If only modern technology could facilitate the loading and transfer of ships and planes as rapidly as it transmits television footage and accomplishes bank transfers.

Physical distance and poor airport and transport facilities, however, are by no means the only difficulties. While aid organisations are expert at operating in adversity, the scale of this disaster, the vast area affected and the numbers rendered homeless are probably without precedent. There are regions, such as Aceh in Indonesia, and part of the Andaman Islands, where there is almost no infrastructure and almost no able-bodied people left. Aid groups say that here a base camp has to be established from scratch.

These are all severely complicating factors, but they cannot be allowed to be insurmountable. That millions of survivors have as yet received no tangible benefit from the vast relief and fund-raising effort being conducted on their behalf is a disgrace. That laden planes are queuing up at airports across the region is shameful. That it was only yesterday that our Prime Minister ordered Navy and Air Force resources to be mobilised and that the ships will not arrive in the area until Tuesday defies belief. Britain has a long experience of relief work around the globe and, through the Commonwealth, almost unequalled knowledge of the region. Whatever is taking so long?

It pains us to say so, but at least George Bush offered extensive US assistance early on, even though the number of American casualties was tiny. It is three days now since Mr Bush formed a joint task-force with Japan, India and Australia, understanding that the extent of this disaster made the initial relief operation a job for the military as well as civilians. Where was Britain?

Mr Bush may feel that he has much to prove in the practice of benevolent multilateralism, and it remains to be seen whether the US will co-operate with, rather than seek to dominate, joint relief operations. Yesterday's meeting at the UN, though, augured well. The next gathering is a summit next week in Indonesia. This is late - maybe too late for many victims of the Boxing Day tsunami. If participating countries can start to formulate principles and systems for a fully coordinated international disaster response in future, it may not be completely in vain.

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