A year ago, a devastating cyclone wreaked havoc in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Whipping up a frenzy at 200 kilometres an hour, the cyclone ravaged whole parts of Yangon, Irrawaddy, Bago, Karen and Mon. Officially, 80,000 people died. But NGOs estimate there could have been up to 130,000 deaths in total. Tobias Grote-Beverborg visited Myanmar shortly after the cyclone had struck.
Residents among fallen trees
A ghostly calm reigned over the international airport in Yangon -- Myanmar’s former capital -- in the days after Cyclone Nargis’ destructive passage. The devastation it had left in its wake was visible all the way to the city centre. Tree trunks blocked the streets, houses were roofless and there was broken glass all over.
The worst-affected area was Myanmar’s so-called rice bowl -- the Irrawaddy Delta. Whole areas sunk in the massive floods because there were very few stone houses and paved roads. Already extremely poor, the local rural population lost everything. Soon there was not enough drinking water, food or medical supplies.
Slow to react, the junta refused to accept international help at first. NGOs with local personnel and volunteers were allowed in reluctantly.
Bodies from Yangon to Irrawaddy
Paula Sitko from World Vision was one of the first international aid workers in Myanmar. "There are bodies lying on the roads from the delta region all the way up to Yangon,” she reported. “We're sending out our assessment teams into the delta region today.”
The junta’s mismanagement was exacerbated by logistics. The infrastructure had collapsed completely and supplies had to be transported by small vehicles and makeshift rafts.
Aye Win, the press spokesman for the UN information centre in Yangon, was desperate as he described the situation: “These areas are very hard to access. Transportation to this area is very difficult, communication is very difficult, roads have been damaged, bridges have been washed away. We can only use very light trucks, which have a payload of about five to six tons. Even though right now aid has been coming in, getting this aid to these areas is a huge challenge for the United Nation system right now."
Junta finally bows down to international pressure
In mid-May, the junta finally opened the borders to international aid organisations. The first helpers came from neighbouring Thailand and China. Later, the US and Europe were allowed to send supplies.
The big breakthrough took place at the UN donor conference at the end of the month. Donor nations promised a great deal of money for reconstruction. In return, the junta promised not to restrict aid deliveries. Finally -- weeks after the devastating cyclone had struck -- the aid measures picked up speed. The initial fears about outbreaks of disease and epidemics did not materialise.
"Immediately after the cyclone, the world feared the worst-case scenario in which thousands more people could have lost their lives due to water borne diseases such as diarrhoea, typhoid,” explained Paul Risley, a senior spokesman for the World Food Programme in Asia, a few months later. “We were surprised to discover that for the most part such diseases didn't take hold in the population. A lot of that is due to the work of local community doctors in making sure that cases were fought quickly and effectively."
Although it is not clear how many people might have been saved if international aid organisations had been allowed in earlier, what certainly is sure is that those affected by Cyclone Nargis will be dependent on international help for years to come.