/ 11 May 2008

‘Unimaginable tragedy’ if Burma delays aid

Desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis poured out of Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on Sunday in search of food, water and medicine but aid workers said thousands would die if emergency supplies do not get through soon.

Buddhist temples and schools in towns on the outskirts of the storm’s trail of destruction are now makeshift refugee centres for women, children and the elderly — some of the 1,5-million people left clinging to survival.

The reclusive military government is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, but will not let in the foreign logistics teams needed to transport the aid as fast as possible into the inundated delta.

”Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there’s going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale,” said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.

In the delta town of Labutta, where 80% of homes were destroyed, authorities were providing one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official said.

The scenes are the same across the former ”Rice Bowl of Asia” where as many as 100 000 people are feared dead in the worst cyclone to hit the continent since 1991, when 143 000 people died in neighbouring Bangladesh.

In a blow to the already stumbling relief effort, a boat carrying some of the first aid to survivors sank on Sunday, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) said.

The boat was believed to have hit a submerged tree in the Irrawaddy Delta. The accident highlighted the enormous logistical difficulties of delivering aid, with roads washed away and much of the delta turned to swamp.

Up to 1,5-million endangered

The lives of 1,5-million people in areas hit by the cyclone are at risk due to disease unless a tsunami-like aid effort is mobilised, international agency Oxfam said on Sunday.

”In the Boxing Day tsunami 250 000 people lost their lives in the first few hours, but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilised a massive aid effort to prevent it from happening,” Oxfam’s regional director for East Asia Sarah Ireland Said in Bangkok.

”We have to do the same for the people of Burma.”

The cyclone is one of the worst disasters since the December 26 2004 tsunami that hit a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean.

Burma raised the death toll on Sunday to 28 458 dead and 33 416 missing from the storm on the night of May 2 and early on May 3. Most of the victims were killed by the 3,5m wall of sea-water that slammed into the delta along with the category-four cyclone’s 190km/h winds.

Australia responded to a United Nations appeal for $187-million in aid by dramatically increasing its contribution to $23,4-million.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Sunday it was moving aid to its field headquarters in Labutta using trucks provided by its partners in Burma, including the Red Cross.

The WFP has flown in seven shipments of aid, and an eighth was due to land on Sunday, spokesperson in Bangkok Marcus Prior said. The agency said its food shipments had been briefly impounded on Friday at Rangoon airport.

France is set to deliver 1 500 tonnes of rice aid aboard the warship Mistral, which would arrive in Burma’s waters in the middle of this week, the French Foreign Ministry said on Sunday.

France wants the aid on the Mistral to be distributed either by the ship’s crew, or by the staff of NGOs already on the ground, or by UN teams, a Foreign Ministry source said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French newspaper Le Figaro on Saturday that France would not consider entrusting aid to the Burma authorities.

Focus on referendum

Despite alarm bells from the international community about feeble cycle relief effort, the junta kept its focus on a weekend referendum on a new constitution, part of a ”road map to democracy” culminating in multiparty elections in 2010.

The New Light of Burma, the junta’s main mouthpiece, said officials were ”systematically and accurately” counting the ballots, but did not say when results would be released. The balloting has been delayed by two weeks in the worst-hit areas, including Rangoon, the former capital.

There is little doubt about the final result.

”I voted yes. It was what I was asked to do,” 57-year-old U Hlaing said in the town of Hlegu, north-west of Rangoon.

Even before Cyclone Nargis, groups opposed to military rule, and foreign governments led by the United States had denounced the vote as an attempt by the military to legitimise its 46-year grip on power. — Reuters