/ 20 November 2007

Bangladesh cyclone death toll nears 3 500

Urgently needed supplies of food, water and medicine were on Tuesday nearing people in remote areas of Bangladesh where a devastating cyclone has left millions homeless and thousands dead.

With roads now cleared of hundreds of trees that had blocked aid convoys, officials said relief was finally starting to get through to the most inaccessible areas five days after the colossal storm hit.

Bangladeshis are famed for managing to endure frequent floods and storms that hit the impoverished and low-lying country — but this time the situation is desperate.

”The scale of this disaster is enormous,” says Heather Blackwell, the Bangladesh head of the British aid group Oxfam.

”People here are resilient. However, the scale is such that it will take months for people to be able to return to their normal lives,” she said, adding it ”could take weeks before we know exactly how bad this cyclone was”.

The confirmed death toll stood at 3 447 but officials feared it could climb significantly after all the victims in isolated areas were accounted for.

The head of the Bangladeshi Red Crescent has said he believed between 5 000 and 10 000 people had died.

World Food Programme country representative Douglas Casson Coutts said the extent of the devastation — villages flattened and crops and livestock washed away — would make it difficult for people to rebuild their lives.

”There is significant damage to the infrastructure. There will definitely have to be longer-term assistance to get people on their feet again,” he said.

Villagers in some of the country’s most remote areas along the coast — one of the poorest parts of the planet — have seen their homes and livelihoods washed away by a huge tidal wave, and are without food or clean water.

Smashed to bits

In the southern fishing town of Padma, the wooden trawlers that the population relies on to make a living were smashed to bits by the storm.

”In about 30 minutes we all became paupers,” said Abdul Jalil, a fisherman, who lost his mother, son, a nephew and two fishing trawlers in one of worst cyclones in the country’s history.

Distraught villagers in the area told Agence France-Presse they had not yet received any assistance — although officials said help was on its way and that the aid effort had now accelerated as earlier transport and communication problems eased.

”The access is getting better every day,” said Coutts. ”We have had to use boats to deliver food but it was possible to do it.”

He said he expected everyone in need would be reached this week.

Officials said the armed forces were continuing to work side-by-side with aid agencies to deliver relief by air, road and sea to remote places.

Meanwhile, offers of international aid continued to pour in.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has pledged $100-million in aid for its fellow Muslim nation, and United States ships were powering to the disaster zone with dozens of helicopters to help coordinate relief efforts.

The Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference has called on governments and civil bodies in its 57 member states to send urgent assistance to the impoverished Muslim country.

The British government confirmed aid worth £2,5-million, to be channelled through the United Nations and used to provide food, water, housing repairs and medical treatment.

In Brussels, the European Commission pledged a further €5-million on top of an initial €1,5-million released on Friday.

”The immediate and critical needs are for food, clean drinking water, shelter materials, clothes, blankets and cooking utensils,” said EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel.

”The enormous damage to infrastructure, coupled with losses of both crops and livestock, mean that urgent action is also needed on basic rehabilitation. Otherwise, disease and malnutrition could claim many more victims.” — Sapa-AFP