Saturday, May 10, 2008

Apocalypse threatens to engulf Burma but junta seizes aid

Published Date: 10 May 2008
By Stephen McGinty
BURMA is facing a disease epidemic of "apocalyptic proportions" after the military dictatorship blocked aid efforts and seized vital supplies forcing the United Nations' World Food Programme to temporarily halt mercy flights.

As the death toll from Cyclone Nargis climbed towards 100,000, with a further 1.5 million people left homeless and starving, the Disasters Emergency Committee yesterday warned of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster to follow unless the Burmese government accepted assistance from world aid agencies.

Last night the United Nations World Food Programme agreed to send in two further plane-loads of aid scheduled to arrive today, after initially calling a halt to its aid programme when two planes were impounded by the government on Friday. The WFP had sent some aid on a scheduled Thai Airways cargo flight on Thursday which went through without problems, however a bureaucratic mix-up led to the seizure of cargo from the next two flights. Instead of immediately whisking the consignment, which included 38 tonnes of high-energy biscuits and relief equipment, to the disaster zone in the Irrawaddy Delta it was immediately confiscated.

"All of the food aid and equipment that we managed to get in has been confiscated," said Paul Risley, spokesman for the UN's World Food Programme in Bangkok. He said: "It is being held by the government. It is sitting in a warehouse. It is not in trucks heading to Irrawaddy Delta where it is critically needed. The frustration caused by what appears to be a paperwork delay is unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts. It's astonishing."

The United Nations also last night launched an international appeal for $187 million and urged the Burmese government to permit humanitarians into the country. Sir John Holmes, the UN secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator said: "Every hour that passes more lives are lost."

Despite the plight of its people, the Burmese government, who for over forty years have viewed the West with deep suspicion and hostility, is adamant that while aid is welcome, aid workers are not.

Yesterday, members of the Disasters Emergency Committee said "they could do more" without opposition from the military junta. Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia, said suspicion of foreign aid workers was hampering their work. He warned of an epidemic of "apocalyptic proportions" if aid does not get through. But he urged donors to continue giving, saying the charities were making a difference.

The DEC appeal, which is supported by The Scotsman, is run by British aid agencies and charities has raised £4 million in two days. Mr Costello said the Burmese government did not have the capacity to run the relief effort required, adding that the impact of Cyclone Nargis could be worse than the affect of the Asian tsunami on Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Speaking from Burma to a press conference in central London, he said: "The frustration is we know we could do more. We know what the potential is but actually we are getting to people and making a difference. He said the affected area contains 19 million people and around two-thirds of them are children.

He continued: "We certainly know that once an epidemic starts it's difficult to stop and becomes of apocalyptic proportions. The potential for this epidemic is extremely probable." He said the relief effort faced a "race against time" to prevent diseases such as diphtheria, cholera and malaria spreading. He said: "The size of this is simply extraordinary and in terms of its impact much greater than the tsunami impact in Sri Lanka or Indonesia. The capacity to absorb this level of suffering, dislocation and chaos doesn't exist (in Burma]. It really requires international aid, it cannot be done in-country."

Meanwhile a Red Cross official Anders Ladekarl, who is in Burma, revealed the magnitude of the task facing rescuers. He said: "We are simply lacking transportation. There are almost no boats and no helicopters. This is really a nightmare to make this operation run."

Entire villages have been submerged in the Irrawaddy delta. Yesterday the British ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, estimated that the death toll was between 60-100,000. Mr Canning said just five of the 17 Britons unaccounted for following the cyclone have been tracked down so far.

Last night Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, chief executive of the Scottish multi-faith charity Mary's Meals, said they were determined not to walk away from their newly-opened food centres in Burma and on the Burma/Thai border. Mr MacFarlane-Barrow said: "My worry is that when the public sees such a respected body as the UN World Food Programme threaten to suspend aid flights into Burma it sends a message that the door has been slammed closed. We could have over 50,000 people dead and over a million suffering; politics will not bury the dead, feed the starving or get water to the thirsty.

"I hope that people continue to give and we can end the squabbling and get aid to those suffering. We at Mary's Meals are determined to rebuild our school feeding stations that have been destroyed ."

Last night the aid group Action Against Hunger noted that the delta region is known as the country's granary, and the cyclone hit before the harvest. A statement released by the group said: "If the harvest has been destroyed this will have a devastating impact on food security in Burma."

The effects were already being felt in Rangoon, where the price of increasingly scarce water shot up by more than 500 per cent, and rice and oil jumped by 60 per cent over the last three days.

Last night there was evidence of a change in direction as the Burmese government agreed to a single US military C-130 in the country on Monday, in what the White House hopes will be the beginning of a steady flow of aid to the stricken nation.

'Please help us, we are facing difficulty for our daily survival'

ONE week ago, the old life of Ma Khine was swept away in a tide of wind, waves and rain. Today, she and her family huddle together in a monastery, along with 500 other villagers from the township of Kyauktan, another victim of Cyclone Nargis.

Last Saturday, Nargis blasted the southern coastal area of Burma at 190kph, the worst natural disaster the country has experienced. Along with the ensuing tidal wave, measuring up to 12m high, the destruction left up to 100,000 people dead or missing.

As night approached and the flood waters rose on Saturday, many villagers crowded into the Sasana Beikman monastery with Ma Khine's family. Others held to vain refuge in their houses, until they collapsed. Some families clung to plastic containers to keep from drowning. Ma Khine said: "It was frightening. I was worried that my family members would be separated. Our faces went blue from cold and I thought we were going to die."

Huddling with her family in one of the hardest-hit areas in Rangoon division, Ma Khine talked briefly about a tough life made worse by the disaster. Economic conditions were so strained in the Irrawaddy Delta village where her family's simple house used to stand, that she had left school to work in a garment factory near the country's capital. She barely earned 200 kyat (£16) a month, she said.

The first reports of fatalities in Kyauktan township put the number of deaths at 16 of the 15,000 affected population and a number of authorities speculate it will grow considerably once they can access more of the 44 affected villages in the township.

In the temporary camp, children younger than five sit in their mother's arms, a shocked expression frozen on their faces. They don't want to return to their village, but their parents are anxious to start picking up the pieces of their shattered world.

As one mother said: "Please help us to rebuild our village. We are facing difficulty for our daily survival as our houses are now lying flat in the water; some are crushed by trees. We do not even have cooking utensils or clothes to wear."

According to a UNICEF team assessing the Kyauktan township situation, food is scarce among the 66 shelters there. Many villagers with houses remaining have been cooking and donating what they can.
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