GWEN IFILL: Now, another assessment of the scope of the weekend disaster, and a look at the global relief efforts directed at its survivors. I spoke earlier today with Jan Egeland. He's the emergency relief coordinator and undersecretary- general for humanitarian affairs at the United Nations.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Egeland, by y now we have all seen the pictures and we have heard the eyewitness descriptions of this devastation in South Asia. I wonder if from a world point of view you can give us a sense of how massive a disaster you consider this to be?
JAN EGELAND: I would consider this to be one the worst natural disasters ever in human history. Many more people live in vulnerable communities to such tsunami. We haven't seen a tsunami like this in the Indian Ocean for more than a hundred years and now many more million people live exposed to the disaster.
Tens of thousands are already confirmed either dead or missing, hundreds of thousands, probably millions, have lost their homes and their livelihoods, and many millions more will be living with polluted drinking water and the long-term health consequences of this could be disastrous.
GWEN IFILL: It's very difficult for most of us to gauge the idea of more than 22,000 people, the numbers keep climbing every hour, dead. How does one, how do relief groups or whomever how do they make those kinds of estimates?
JAN EGELAND: These are estimates that we've gotten from local and national authorities in the most hard hit countries which are Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia. Most of the dead so far have been confirmed in Sri Lanka. In Indonesia, especially in the island of Sumatra, there are many communities we haven't even been able to access yet. And Sumatra was the closest to the epicenter of this sub-sea earthquake.
For many days we will still have to assess before we know the full scale of the disaster; however, the United Nations and the Red Cross and the non-governmental relief organization efforts to put relief together with local and national authorities has, of course, already started, and we are saving lives as we speak.
GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to compare this to any other natural disaster that we would be familiar with in recent history?
JAN EGELAND: Well, some years back we had the phenomenal hurricane called Mitch that hit Central America. There were tens of thousands of casualties in Central America at the time. A number of countries had their economy totally destroyed. This is potentially even worse with even more people affected.
This tsunami hit so many countries, so many heavily populated coastlines that it's far beyond even the earthquake exactly one year ago in Christmas last year. We had the Bam earthquake of Iran where 26,000 people were confirmed dead in the end, but that was one place only. These are eight countries affected.
GWEN IFILL: And when you are talking about eight countries, how do you begin to put a price tag on what it is going to cost to not only conduct relief efforts, but to rebuild. Is there any way?
JAN EGELAND: We have from the United Nations side sent expert teams to all of the affected countries, either people we had the in the countries or additional people we've sent from Geneva and other places. Our people are now conducting assessments together with national authorities and local authorities. They again will come up with concrete appeals for international assistance.
We expect to have such an international appeal ready on a regional basis with all of the most affected countries participating in early January. But even before that time, the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent and non-governmental organizations are appealing for funds. We need to get bottled water, for example, to hundreds of thousands of people who only have polluted drinking water at the moment.
GWEN IFILL: What should the international response be overall, would you say?
JAN EGELAND: The international response should be immediate and generous. The total cost of this devastation are sure to be in the billions and billions of dollars, and one should remember that those most affected are the poorest who have lost everything, their livelihoods. These are fishing villages and so on that have just been wiped away. The rich countries should respond.
The new rich countries should also respond and we should respond in an unprecedented way. It is interesting to me to see that the more rich we in the rich country have become, we haven't become more generous. Most of the rich countries give 0.2 percent of their riches in international assistance. And that's not good enough.
GWEN IFILL: There has been much debate about this today. Is there any way that this could have been prevented or at least there could have been a warning?
JAN EGELAND: Well, in the Indian Ocean, there hasn't been this kind of a tsunami for more than 100 years. Certainly if there had been the same kind of an early warning system as the one that is in place in the Pacific basin, there would have been early warning, at least to some of the countries.
We have to learn from what happened. In the United Nations, we calling a world conference on disaster prevention in Korba, Japan, in January and we will have 2,000 experts from all over the world to discuss disaster prevention from tsunamis because we are seeing the climate is changing and getting worse. The number of hurricanes, the number of extreme weather patterns are growing and more and more vulnerable people are being hurt.
GWEN IFILL: Jan Egeland, thank you very much.
JAN EGELAND: Thank you.