Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Poor support and the military government's refusal to allow foreign aid workers have left most of the delta's survivors living in miserable conditions.
YANGON, Myanmar - Heavy rains and another potentially powerful storm headed toward Myanmar's cyclone-devastated delta on Wednesday. The U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to a second wave of deaths among the estimated 2 million survivors.
The International Red Cross said in a new estimate that the death toll already may be between 68,833 and 127,990.
The Red Cross says it arrived at the number by adding figures gathered in affected areas by other aid groups and organizations and extrapolating the total.
The Myanmar junta says Cyclone Nargis left at least 34,273 dead and 27,838 missing. U.N. agencies and other groups have been able to reach only 270,000 people so far.
The country's junta told visiting Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, however, that it is in control of the relief operations and doesn't need foreign experts.
Samak visited a government relief center in Yangon and told reporters after returning to Bangkok that the junta has given him the "guarantee" that there are no disease outbreaks and no starvation among the cyclone survivors.
"They have their own team to cope with the situation," Samak said, citing Myanmar Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein. "From what I have seen I am impressed with their management."
International agencies say bottlenecks, poor logistics, limited infrastructure and the military government's refusal to allow foreign aid workers have left most of the delta's survivors living in miserable conditions without food or clean water. The government's efforts have been criticized as woefully slow.
Rain has been has been pounding the cyclone-hit area all week, and more is expected in the coming days, compounding the already difficult task of moving supplies over ruined roads. It also poses significant health risks to survivors of the May 3 cyclone.
"The weather will exacerbate humanitarian conditions for the homeless, many of whom are living under an open sky," said Elizabeth Griffin, a director of Catholic Relief Services from Baltimore. "Thankfully, no serious outbreaks of bacterial, water or mosquito borne diseases have been reported, but this could change in the next two to three weeks."
The U.S. military's Joint Typhoon Warning Center said there is a good chance that "a significant tropical cyclone" will form within the next 24 hours and head across the Irrawaddy delta area.
But other forecasters were unwilling to make such a prediction.
Dr. Thawat Sutharacha of Thailand's Public Health Ministry said Wednesday the junta has given permission to a Thai medical team to go to the cyclone-hit delta.
The government separately announced that it will allow 160 relief workers from neighboring countries — India, China, Bangladesh, and Thailand — to come to Myanmar, but it is not clear if they include the Thai medics or whether they will be allowed to travel to the delta.
"The government has a responsibility to assist their people in the event of a natural disaster," said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs.
"We are here to do what we can and facilitate their efforts and scale up their response. It is clearly inadequate and we do not want to see a second wave of death as a result of that not being scaled up," she said.
The news of a possible second cyclone was not broadcast by Myanmar's state-controlled media. But Yangon residents picked up the news on foreign broadcasts and on the Internet.
"I prayed to the Lord Buddha, 'please save us from another cyclone. Not just me but all of Myanmar,'" said Min Min, a rickshaw driver, whose house was destroyed in Cyclone Nargis. Min Min, his wife and three children now live on their wrecked premises under plastic sheets.
Soldiers have barred foreign aid workers from reaching cyclone survivors in the hardest-hit areas, but gave access to an International Red Cross representative who returned to Yangon on Tuesday.
Bridget Gardner, the agency's country head, described tremendous devastation but also selflessness, as survivors joined in the rescue efforts.
"People who have come here having lost their homes in rural areas have volunteered to work as first aiders. They are humanitarian heroes," said Gardner.
Gardner's team visited five locations in the Irrawaddy delta. In one of them, they saw 10,000 people living without shelter as rain tumbled from the sky.
"The town of Labutta is unrecognizable. I have been here before and now, with the extent of the damage and the crowds of displaced people, it's a different place," Gardner was quoted as saying in a statement by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Some survivors of Cyclone Nargis were reportedly getting poor-quality or spoiled food, rather than nutrition-rich biscuits sent by international donors, adding to suspicions that the junta may be misappropriating foreign aid.
The military, which has ruled since 1962, has taken control of most supplies sent by other countries, including the United States, which began its third day of aid delivery Wednesday as five more giant C-130 transport planes loaded with emergency supplies headed to Myanmar.
Lt. Col. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for what has been dubbed operation Caring Relief, said a total of 197,080 pounds of provisions have been sent into Myanmar on the eight U.S. military flights that have been cleared to go.
Most of the provisions have been blankets, mosquito nets, plastic sheets and water.
In Washington, the State Department renewed U.S. appeals for the junta to allow in outside disaster relief experts and more assistance.
"We want to see the regime do more to allow the outside world to be able to help people in need in that country," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "This is not a political issue, this really is simply a humanitarian issue."
Myanmar has agreed to attend an emergency meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers next week to discuss problems in getting foreign aid into the country, Asian diplomats said Wednesday.
Diplomats from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar, are to hold the meeting Monday in Singapore, said two Manila-based Southeast Asian diplomats knowledgeable about preparations for the gathering.
Singapore, which currently heads the ASEAN bloc, organized the meeting after getting a nod from Myanmar, which has committed to sending its foreign minister, according to one of the diplomats. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.