14 May 2008 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a much greater mobilization of resources and aid workers in Myanmar to respond to the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, which has left at least 38,000 dead and more than 27,000 others missing since it swept through the country earlier this month.
“Even though the Myanmar Government has shown some sense of flexibility, at this time, it’s far, far too short,” Mr. Ban said today. “The magnitude of this situation requires much more mobilization of resources and aid workers,” he added.
The Secretary-General also announced that he is meeting today with leaders from ASEAN – the Association of South-east Asian Nations – to discuss “concrete measures that we can do from now on.” Mr. Ban said that, “until now, regrettably, I think we have spent much of our time and energy in facilitating aid, getting food in, and visas being issued.”
About 2.5 million people are estimated to have been severely affected by the cyclone since it struck on 2 May, with the Irrawaddy delta area among the hardest-hit areas.
Echoing the Secretary-General’s concerns, the UN’s top relief official said that the biggest problem facing the aid operation was that international humanitarian workers were not being allowed to travel down into the affected area in the delta outside Yangon, the country’s largest city. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes urged the Myanmar authorities, “to open up in this area as much as they can and as soon as they can, because that could make a huge difference. It’s perfectly obvious I think to everyone that the national resources that they have are not adequate to cope with the problems.”
Mr. Holmes said, however, that in a “selective opening up to international staff” the Government had invited its immediate neighbours China, Bangladesh, Thailand and India to send 160 international workers to join the relief effort.
Mr. Holmes added that around 550,000 people had now gathered in rudimentary camps scattered through the Irrawaddy delta area. Increasing quantities of supplies were reaching Myanmar, he said, though he described the current level of aid as “inadequate.”
Between 25 and 30 special flights had arrived in Yangon in the past few days, in addition to regular airline flights which have also been ferrying in relief supplies. 25,000 tarpaulins have been distributed to households, with 50,000 more on the way. Mr. Holmes said that aid agencies were aiming to cover at least 200,000 households.
He said that he was concerned at reports that aid was being diverted away from cyclone victims, but that checks carried out in the country had not uncovered any significant evidence of this.
Speaking earlier today at a press conference for aid agencies in Bangkok, Amanda Pitt of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) said she was very concerned for the victims of the cyclone. “We want to make sure that we scale this response up as much as we can. It’s not adequate at the moment,” she added.
Marcus Prior of the World Food Programme (WFP) said the organization had been able to deliver high energy biscuits and rice to an estimated 74,000 people. He added that the WFP was working with companies inside Myanmar to “ramp up” its trucking capacity, from the 30 trucks already in use.
He said that one major challenge in Myanmar was that in many parts of the Irrawaddy delta bridges are only constructed to support five tons, whereas in other countries trucks delivering food often carry 30 to 40 tons. The organization was therefore looking into establishing a fleet of small lorries. He also said that the WFP was considering using a large ship as a floating warehouse as a transit hub for supplies.
Maureen Birmingham reported for the World Health Organization (WHO) that emergency health kits had now been distributed to six of the seven worst affected townships. WHO has so far not had reports of any major outbreaks of disease, though it is working on moving bed nets into the area to prevent outbreaks of malaria.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that water and sanitation were very serious issues, since the hand-dug wells that most people relied on in the delta had been filled with debris or salt water, leaving them to rely on rain or pond water. UNICEF spokesperson Shantha Bloemen said that water purification supplies were being ferried in, but said that new water treatment facilities would be needed in the longer-term.
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