U.N. in dark about cyclone disaster needs as toll hits 78,000

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar — The United Nations said Friday that severe restrictions by Myanmar’s military junta have left aid agencies largely in the dark about the extent of survivors’ suffering, two weeks after a killer cyclone left up to 2.5 million people destitute.

John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will go to Myanmar on Sunday to try to convince junta leaders to grant more access for U.N. relief workers and massively scale up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.

Some diplomats have also been invited by the regime to visit the delta, said Heinke Veit, an EU spokeswoman in Myanmar. She said she had no details.

Officials of various U.N. agencies called a news conference in Bangkok to give an update on their relief operations. The most basic data was missing, from the number of orphans to the extent of diseases and the number of refugee camps.


They also couldn’t say whether all survivors are in camps, on the move or still living in destroyed villages in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta, an area the size of Austria. Cyclone Nargis also pounded Yangon, Myanmar’s main city.

"The risk increases with each passing day," Pitt said, referring to the vulnerability of survivors to outbreaks of disease and other problems.

Even the death toll has not been confirmed.

"Everyone is still using range of figures because we don’t have data yet. Access is making that difficult ... We simply don’t have the information, and I can’t say when we will have it," said Steve Marshall, a U.N. official who just came out of Myanmar.

The government says at least 43,318 people were killed and nearly 28,000 went missing when the May 2-3 cyclone turned the low-lying delta into a quagmire of shattered villages and squalid refugee camps ringed by fetid waters.

The Red Cross fears the toll may be as high as 128,000; the U.N. estimates more than 100,000 died.

In the absence of a clear picture, the U.N. estimates some 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. Aid groups have reached only 270,000 so far.

Lack of clean water will be "the biggest killer" in Irrawaddy in the coming days, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the international Red Cross, told The Associated Press in Geneva.


"To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the (Irrawaddy) delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical nor the staff capacity to do," he said.

The WHO said the first cases of cholera were recorded but couldn’t provide any details. However, WHO’s Thailand chief Maureen Birmingham said cholera is normal in the delta this time of the year.

The junta insists Myanmar nationals and government agencies, including the military, can handle relief operations, particularly aid distribution.

"We still have obstacles to relief workers getting to the delta region, which doesn’t help," Pitt said. "We are concerned about the effects on the people. It is clear, from what everyone is saying, the aid effort is far from over."

The United Nations says the regime has issued 40 visas to its staffers and another 46 to nongovernment agencies but has confined the personnel to the immediate Yangon area.

Marshall, the U.N. official, laid out the hurdles that aid agencies face.

He said the military has set up checkpoints on the two main roads to the delta to keep foreigners out of the disaster zone. Even local staff have to negotiate with the military to gain access to the camps.

"Things will still get done, but they will not be done as effectively, efficiently or as quickly, which means delays, which means increasing risk in terms of health, security and in terms of longer-term rehabilitation and getting back to a normal lifestyle," he said.


The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF said Friday the agency’s fourth flight into Myanmar, scheduled for Saturday, would deliver several tons of food for malnourished children. Radio broadcasts are trying to help lost children find their families, it said.

"At the moment, it is a difficult to know how many children have been separated or unaccompanied. We still have no indication of how many orphans there may be," said Shantha Bloemen, a UNICEF spokeswoman.

In the absence of an organized relief effort by the government, ordinary people are stepping in, with shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge and medical students caring for the sick.

Daw Mya Win, a 49-year-old grocer in a Yangon suburb, cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of it to some of the thousands of homeless sheltering in Buddhist monasteries.

College students are going door-to-door, handing out a few pennies to families for rice.

"Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile," said Nyi Nyi, 21.

What To Read Next
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.