Medics rush to victims' aid

January 7, 2005

Academics and medical students are at the forefront of Sri Lanka's relief operation as survivors of last week's Indian Ocean tsunamis struggle with disease, food shortages and lack of shelter.

Within hours of the waves created by an earthquake off Sumatra bearing down on coastal communities, university administrators in Sri Lanka were recording damage and seeking to account for dead and missing faculty, other employees and students.

Universities opened their campuses to thousands of displaced people. Up to 3,000 refugees sought shelter at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

Four of the country's 13 universities were directly affected. By Tuesday, nine days after the disaster, the casualty list stood at 16 personnel and 18 students known to be dead, and a further 112 missing.

Many of the casualties occurred away from the campuses, which were relatively free from damage, according to B. R. R. N. Mendis, chairman of the University Grants Commission.

The start of the new semester was deferred for two weeks and exams and interviews postponed in the wake of the disaster.

The Sri Jayawardenepura University has dispatched 50 doctors to help in Sarvodaya, while 50 of its medical students are awaiting deployment.

Similar numbers of students are on call at the universities of Colombo, Kelaniya and Perdeniya. Some 50 students from Ruhuna are in the field.

Engineers and architects from universities across the country are standing by to tackle the task of rebuilding the infrastructure.

Plans to build a 1 billion new rupee (£4.88 million) university in a deprived part of the island are still likely to go ahead, Professor Mendis told The Times Higher . He acknowledged, however, that the Government might be forced to reconsider the project.

Arun Nigavekar, chairman of India's University Grants Commission, said that despite the force of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry University had sustained "almost nil damage". Chennai was largely unscathed.

E. Balagurusamy, vice-chancellor of Anna University, said there had been no reports of casualties among staff or students at any of the city's universities.

"This university and its 240 affiliated colleges have started on a massive relief fund," Professor Balagurusamy said.

"Some students and faculty have been helping the fishermen on the Chennai coast who are badly affected. University communities in the southern part of Tamil Nadu are participating in the relief operation in the worst-hit east coast area."

Within two days of the disaster, a team of surgeons from the faculty of medicine at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta flew to Aceh.

With controversy over the question of warnings from the US being downplayed, Thailand's Kasetsart University announced that it would establish a warning centre at a coastal resources research institute at Ranong, which was almost completely destroyed. The university said that the Centre for Disaster Studies and Tsunami Monitoring would study changes in the Andaman Sea.

Five of the seven most affected countries are Commonwealth members. John Rowett, secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said that he would contact the Commonwealth Secretariat to discuss the role of its 470 members in responding to the crisis.

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