The European Union and Germany expressed concern Thursday, May 8, over the progress of aid sent to the victims of Burma's cyclone. Meanwhile UN agencies were preparing to enter the country after experiencing delays.
A United Nations aid plane sits on the runway in Italy waiting for permission to fly to Burma
Even as the first two flights carrying relief supplies from the United Nations arrived in Burma on Thursday, leaders around the world complained of lack of access to the country devastated by cyclone Nargis over the weekend.
World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after this cyclone, few have been able to send reinforcements into Burma.
The cyclone is estimated to have affected 1.5 million people
The humanitarian disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis in Burma is equivalent to a "five-fold tsunami," European External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Thursday as the European Union reiterated its concerns over the difficulties which aid organizations faced in entering the country.
EU appeal to open borders
Ferrero-Waldner said she had written to Burma's Foreign Minister Nyan Win appealing him to open the borders to allow international relief workers in.
A spokesman for the EU's executive, the European Commission, echoed Ferrero-Waldner's words in an official statement: "Access remains one of our biggest concerns -- access of humanitarian workers, access of aid. Aid pledges are increasing, but what is important now is to have the material deliveries of aid."
"Promises do not save lives. Those who save lives are those humanitarian workers who know what to do in such a situation," the spokesman said.
Burma's normally reclusive military regime was initially quick to ask for international aid, in a move praised abroad as a rare show of openness.
"There are encouraging signs, but still a few of them, not too many," the commission spokesman said, citing Burma's decision to admit three commission experts and a UN supply flight as examples.
Aid organizations have supplies ready for when they're allowed to enter Burma
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said Thursday that the international community needed to press Burma's government into allowing more aid to enter the country.
"We need to continue to urge the government to cooperate," he told the AFP news agency, adding that he rejected criticism that the United Nations should have been more demanding. "I do not believe confrontation with the government is likely to result in more help" for the cyclone victims.
Out of frustration over lack of access to 1.5 million people estimated to be affected by the cyclone, the United States said it was considering dropping food aid over parts of Burma even if the Burmese government didn't give official permission.
Ferrero-Waldner concerned about looming epidemics
Ferrero-Waldner warned of the threat of disease in Burma
In her statement, Ferrero-Waldner continued by focusing on the lack of drinking water and rice, saying these were key problems in the affected areas and warned of the looming danger of epidemics as much of the fresh water had been contaminated with salt water.
"It's an unbelievably catastrophic situation," she said before going into a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin.
Steinmeier said the German government was "deeply concerned over the development of the situation" in Burma.
"The need of the people is great," he said. "Part of our concern is that the government in Burma is still standing in the way of effective cooperation in organizing assistance."
Steinmeier issued an urgent appeal to the Burmese government to allow aid organizations into the country so that they could do their work.
"We have called in the ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to repeat this appeal to him and to call urgently on him to relay this message to the government in Myanmar," he said, referring to the country with the name its military government uses.
Germany to talk directly with Burma over access
Steinmeier urged Burma for allow more access
German Foreign Ministry sources said talks with Ambassador U Tin Win would concentrate on obstacles placed in the way of relief organizations reaching the stricken areas.
Germany on Wednesday doubled its humanitarian aid to the people of Burma to 1 million euros [$1.5 million], channeling the funds through German aid organizations and not to the military government.
Cyclone Nargis left Burma's largest city, Yangon, without electricity and water after it struck over the weekend, causing untold damage to the fragile infrastructure and food supply.
Estimates of those killed, hurt and left homeless vary widely, with a US diplomat in Burma saying the death toll from the weekend cyclone could reach 100,000.
UN agencies ready to enter Burma with aid
Shelter, food and water purification take priority for the UN
In aid developments, UNICEF announced Thursday that it had launched an emergency appeal for an initial $8.2 million to assist the survivors.
UNICEF said the priority was to ensure supplies of clean drinking water, shelter materials, water purification tablets, cooking sets, mosquito nets, food and essential drugs.
Many schools and health centers have been destroyed or severely damaged and electricity has been cut. Access to clean water and health care were major concerns bringing increased risks of water-borne diseases.
The Deputy Director of UNICEF's Office of Emergency Programs Pierrette Vu Thi said, in launching the appeal in Geneva: "Children are the most vulnerable in coping with the effects of such a disaster. They are likely to be severely affected and in need of immediate assistance."
Another United Nations agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] said it hoped to deliver 22 tons of relief goods to Burma this weekend crossing the border from North West Thailand at Mae Sot.
Refugee agency to provide shelter by the weekend
UNHCR tents are expected to arrive in Burma on Saturday
UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva the delay in getting aid through was "only a question of logistics" and the organization hoped the goods would enter Burma Saturday.
The situation was confirmed by the director of UNHCR's Asia Pacific Bureau, Janet Lim: "We are working closely with the Myanmar authorities to get our relief supplies into Myanmar by road from Thailand and we are also exploring sending more emergency shelter materials, mainly plastic sheeting and tarpaulins, to Yangon by air from Dubai."
UNHCR does not normally deal with natural disasters, but said it had responded to the cyclone because of the scale of the devastation, the urgent needs of the victims, and the proximity of its emergency relief supplies to Burma. UNHCR was part of the joint UN emergency response to the cyclone.
The UNHCR supplies should provide enough plastic sheets and tents to shelter 10,000 people. "It may take time to reach Yangon, but we will be moving as fast as possible," said Lim.