On Monday, Myanmar’s junta declared a three-day mourning period and reluctantly agreed to ASEAN’s, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, offer to coordinate international aid efforts to bring relief to the victims of Cyclone Nargis but it said international workers would not be given unlimited access to the country. NGOs fear the death toll could soar without a massive increase of emergency aid, food, water, shelter and medicine. Meanwhile, thousands of victims are fleeing the Irrawaddy delta.
Survivors of Cyclone Nargis clamber for aid
Whole swathes of land lie under water, streets and houses are damaged and much of the population is living in dire straits. This is what the German ambassador, Andreas Dietrich, saw for himself at the weekend when he visited the devastated region around the Irrawaddy delta by plane.
Dietrich praised the fact that the authorities had stepped up their aid efforts: “I saw hospitals and schools, which had received temporary roofs of corrugated iron sheets. Clearing up work was going on everywhere. But of course the situation remains critical and we only saw those areas where aid is being delivered effectively.”
There are plenty of areas where aid is not being delivered effectively. This is one reason why the international community has been trying to persuade the generals to allow specialist aid workers and medical staff into Myanmar for days now. The junta has been very reluctant so far.
On Monday, it said it would allow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to co-ordinate efforts to facilitate the distribution of aid from the international community. However, it insisted international aid workers would not be given unfettered access to Myanmar.
Fleeing the heavily-flooded region
Meanwhile, there is growing concern about how to deal with the thousands of refugees trying to flee the ravaged Irrawaddy delta region. The United Nations estimate that about half a million refugees are on the move. Having lost all of their possessions when the cyclone hit, they cannot protect themselves against the monsoon rains.
“People are fleeing by road, by truck or even on foot,” explained Hans Musswessels from the German organisation Lands Aid. “Sometimes they have cows which survived. We reckon they are making their way to the outskirts of Yangon to seek shelter there, because the rain is not stopping in the delta itself.”
But it is not so easy to escape the delta region because troops and police are monitoring the roads constantly. They have been doing their best to keep international aid workers away from the area and refugees in.
Need for solidarity
“We’re trying to channel the streams of refugees by creating temporary settlements,” said Musswessels. “The Red Cross is doing some very good work. But one country cannot deal with such a catastrophe alone.”
Apart from the junta, everybody is in agreement on this point. International NGOs have expressed their fears that the death toll could rise dramatically.
Meanwhile, Myanmar state television has confirmed that 133,000 people are already either dead or missing. The generals have declared three days of mourning, starting on Tuesday.