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The vast numbers of tsunami victims in the stricken countries around the Indian Ocean boggle the mind. More than 10 days after the disaster, exact figures are still unknown. According to the United Nations, the death toll has passed 150,000 and is expected to keep climbing. Thousands of other people, including hundreds of Japanese tourists, are missing.

The giant tsunamis, triggered by a monstrous quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, have cut a wide swath of destruction across southern Asia. Roads have been washed out and buildings reduced to rubble. Full-scale relief efforts, including the recovery of the dead, medical treatment of the wounded (estimated at 500,000) and the provision of clean water, are beginning to take off.

In terms of casualties, the catastrophe is said to be the worst in living memory — worse than the earthquake that hit Tokyo and surrounding areas in 1923. Now there are fears of a “secondary disaster” — the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera and malaria — as sanitation deteriorates for lack of tap water.

Now is the time for the world to come together under U.N. leadership to help the victims. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan puts the number of people in need of food, potable water, shelter and/or medical care at 5 million or more. Their lives now depend on international emergency aid and medical support.

On Thursday, donor nations and international organizations held a summit meeting in Jakarta to discuss ways of helping the affected countries. The meeting, hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was the first occasion since the Dec. 26 disaster for global leaders to demonstrate the will to launch a collective relief effort.

The lineup of dignitaries assembled in the capital of Indonesia, the country hardest hit, attests to the dimensions of the tragedy. In addition to the leaders of ASEAN member states, participants included Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, U.N. Secretary General Annan, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The approximately $2.2 billion in total aid promised so far by individual nations and international organizations is one of the largest global sums ever committed for disaster relief. Japan, a leading contributor, has pledged $500 million.

Relief activities require not only money but also people, goods and brainpower. These resources must be provided as quickly as possible. There is much Japan can and should do, given its experience in dealing with earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as its expertise in disaster recovery and reconstruction. The task for the government now is to draw up specific plans to put the $500 million in aid to work.

The Self-Defense Forces is ready to take an active part in international emergency relief activities. The hope is that SDF units, while maintaining close a liaison with the countries involved, will conduct their duties in ways that meet the expectations of needy people.

An immediate priority is to deliver relief supplies such as food and medicine. For that, bottlenecks in transportation must be cleared. It is also essential that the U.N. and affected countries, as well as donor nations and organizations, work closely together to organize and coordinate their activities. Reconstruction may require five to 10 years of international aid.

Building a tsunami early-warning system in the Indian Ocean is another urgent priority. The latest tsunamis would have caused much less damage if countries in the region had been as well prepared for such disasters as Pacific Rim nations.

Education has a critical role to play. Because of the rarity of large tsunamis, coastal residents have felt less concerned about them than about the potential for disaster from typhoons and other storms. Experts say a great tsunami disaster statistically may occur only once in several decades or even centuries. The last time a big earthquake occurred off Sumatra was in 1833. In the Indian Ocean, however, smaller tsunami disasters have hit repeatedly over the years — once every 15 to 25 years.

The latest tsunamis devastated many coastal areas, washing away almost everything on or near the seashore. One safety rule for tsunamis is this: If you see the sea level rising (or falling) unusually, or hear strange rumblings offshore, run away from the shore. Spreading knowledge as basic as this, along with creating an alert system, will minimize damage.

It has been just 10 years since a destructive earthquake hit the Kobe-Osaka area, and on Jan. 18 a U.N. conference on disaster preparedness will be held in Kobe City. The meeting, together with Thursday’s tsunami summit in Jakarta, provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine how to deal with quake and tsunami disasters.

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