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Tsunami deaths soar past 212,000

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JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia is reporting a staggering new death toll from the tsunami disaster as recovery efforts slowly resolve the fates of tens of thousands of missing people.

The Indonesian Health Ministry says the December 26 earthquake and tsunamis killed 166,320 people in Indonesia, double the previous official figure.

The latest figures out of Indonesia now put the regional death toll for the Indian Ocean disaster at 212,611.

The new death numbers reflected the latest reports from the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, both in the path of the killer tsunamis spawned by a magnitude 9 earthquake the day after Christmas, Dodi Indrasanto, a director at the Health Ministry, told Reuters.

Authorities say 6,245 people are listed as missing in Indonesia.

But Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, speaking before the latest figures were released, told a donor conference in Jakarta the true extent of the catastrophe defied description.

"Perhaps we will never know the exact scale of the human casualties," he said.

Officials have warned that compiling accurate figures for those killed or missing from the tsunami is almost impossible as many people were swept away by the waves into sea, while others were buried under rubble and mud.

Three weeks after the tsunami struck, relief workers and militaries are trying to help the survivors and rebuild communities.

Indonesia's defense minister said the military is sending 5,000 more soldiers to the region to help with reconstruction efforts.

So far aid workers have been able to prevent outbreaks of measles, malaria, diarrhea in massive refugee camps set up around the region after experts warned that hundreds of thousands of people remain at risk of disease.

But survivors, living in makeshift accommodation around water lying in stagnant pools and swamps left by the tsunami, are still at risk.

They are "straining to stay ahead of a wide range of threats to a severely weakened, still disoriented and beleaguered population," said Bob Dietz, the World Health Organization spokesman in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

"I still sense a precarious situation."

Most survivors have been getting food aid, and workers are now trying to make sure they get a healthy diet, including canned fish, cooking oil with added vitamin A and fortified biscuits, The Associated Press reported.

Indonesian authorities are taking steps to assure international donors that money pouring in for relief efforts won't go to corrupt officials, and they have appointed the accounting firm Ernst & Young to track relief donations.

So far, governments and agencies have pledged some $4 billion.

Meanwhile, a group of experts is meeting in Kobe, Japan to talk about lessons learnt from last month's quake and tsunamis.

Key to the meeting is laying the foundation for an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system, similar to one set up in the Pacific.

The U.N. has proposed a system in the Indian Ocean -- including offshore detection buoys and a communications center -- that would cost $30 million and go into operation by mid-2006.

Experts say well-placed breakwaters, quake-proof seawalls, detailed hazard maps showing danger areas and well-defined evacuation routes and shelters are also needed, according to the AP.

In Tamil Nadu, the Indian state where more than 8,000 people died, state officials have come up with an alternative solution. They are planning to plant 3 billion casuarina, coconut and cashew saplings along the coast after discovering that villages that survived were protected by forest cover.

Sri Lanka is launching an extremely ambitious plan to rebuild parts of the country wiped out in the tsunami disaster.

By some estimates, almost two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coastal region was destroyed, including hundreds of thousands of homes.

The so-called "Rebuilding Nation" program is expected to cost $3.5 billion. It includes plans for constructing new townships, replanning transportation networks, and improving telecommunications infrastructure.

The U.N. head of emergency relief has warned that a natural disaster in any of the world's largest cities could set off a catastrophe that could be 100 times worse than the Indian Ocean tsunamis.

"Perhaps the most frightening prospect would be to have a truly megadisaster in a megacity," Jan Egeland, the U.N. Director of Disaster Relief, told delegates from 150 nations at the Kobe summit.

"Then we could have not only a tsunami-style casualty rate as we have seen late last year, but we could see one hundred times that in a worst case."

Megacities are densely concentrated cities, with a population of 10 million or more, and Egeland said time is running short for some of the largest cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The five most populated cities in the world are the greater Tokyo area with 35.3 million people, Mexico City with 19 million, New York-Newark with 18.5 million and Bombay and Sao Paulo both with a population of 18.3 million, U.N. figures show.

The United Nations is also calling for the world's children to be educated in disaster reduction and prevention in the next 10 years.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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