By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - International humanitarian organizations are helping Japan mobilize a massive relief effort in the aftermath of Friday's earthquake and tsunami that has displaced nearly a half-million people so far, U.N. and U.S. officials said on Thursday.
Emergency water, blankets, portable warehouses and tents are being dispatched, mostly from Japanese supplies but also from foreign sources like Malaysia, said Rene McGuffin, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program in Washington.
The 9.0 magnitude earthquake on the east coast of Japan
sparked a devastating tsunami, which has left about 492,000 people homeless in a nation of 126.5 million people, according to the United Nations.
Many of those people are now camping out in schools, sports centers and community centers in seven prefectures in Japan.
The Japanese government has not yet asked for food aid, according to McGuffin and officials at the Agency for International Development.
"They have asked us to provide logistical support on the ground," McGuffin told Reuters. She added that a WFP team is helping "move water, food and shelter" to emergency areas.
Japan is one of the world's largest importers of food, relying on foreign-grown commodities for 60 percent of its needs. Of its $30 billion in agricultural imports a year, one-third comes from the United States.
"Japan will likely be able to buy the food it needs and has reserves that may not have been affected," said Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Alliance for Global Food Security in Washington. But she noted Japan faced daunting logistical problems in delivering food, housing and healthcare.
If Japan decides it must resort to food aid, it likely would be provided by neighboring countries, specialists said.
"I'm not sure the U.S. would be the best country to provide food. You'd have to get it there" from a long distance, said a Democratic aide in the Congress. "Countries that are closer: China, Australia," would be more likely, the aide said.
While U.S. aid workers are on the ground in Japan helping to evaluate further humanitarian needs, including food, Japan's government "continues to express a preference for financial assistance," according to a USAID document.
USAID said that plans are being implemented to erect 30,000 shelters in within two months.
Day-to-day life in Japan is being complicated by widespread shortages of electricity and fuel, compounded by fears of potential radiation contamination from severely damaged nuclear power facilities at the Fukushima plant. Around 1.6 million Japanese do not have access to water, according to the U.N.
Meanwhile, search and rescue teams from Fairfax, Virginia, and Los Angeles County, California, were working with Japanese authorities. Washington also has dispatched equipment to sniff out radiation that may be leaking from the Fukushima facilities.
USAID so far has budgeted $8 million in aid to Japan. But with Republicans in the Congress now pushing for deep cuts to Washington's international aid generally, it was not clear whether the agency would be hampered if Japan were to request additional assistance.
A commodities analyst, AgResource Co., earlier this week estimated that Japan's demand for corn and soybeans could drop 3 percent to 8 percent, as damaged ports, feed mills and meat-processing facilities could not handle the shipments.
Marri Carrow, a spokeswoman for the Grains Council, which promotes exports of American-grown corn, barley and other products, said that Japanese facilities untouched by the March 11 disaster would have the capacity to meet demand.
But she added, "The challenge will be transporting it (commodities) from one area to another. There's a shortage of fuel."