The United Nations are racing against time to bring relief to victims of Cyclone Nargis. Strong pre-monsoon showers are making it even harder to access the cyclone-hit region in Myanmar’s south.
Unloading aid supplies for Myanmar
Sitting in his office in Yangon, as the rain hits the windows, Aye Win, the spokesman of the UN Information Center in Myanmar, describes the problems with the relief operations.
“We are extremely concerned about the situation in the [Irrawaddy] delta simply because those areas are very hard to access. Transportation to these areas is extremely difficult, communication is very difficult, roads have been damaged and bridges have been washed away.”
He adds that the UN can only “use very light trucks, which have a payload of five to six tons. Getting this aid to these areas is a huge challenge to the United Nations right now.”
Facing the challenge
With the help of hundreds of local volunteers, the UN is facing up to this “huge challenge”. Planes deliver aid to Yangon every day -- tents, water and medicine for instance -- but precious time is lost accessing the Irrawaddy delta.
“From the time an aircraft lands and is cleared and (the material) is actually taken into the affected areas there are about two days or a little more,” says Win.
“Depending on the road conditions, the availability of the transport. But there are a few areas that are still unreachable. So these are very major challenges.”
Aid needed desperately
The UN estimates that there are between one and two million people in desperate need of immediate help. Daily, the official death toll rises: so far, 43,000 people have been confirmed dead, 28,000 are missing. The Red Cross and the UN fear the number of dead could reach 100,000.
Although the military government has welcomed international aid donations -- on Friday, for instance, the junta’s mouthpiece ‘The New Light of Myanmar’ printed a list of donor countries, as well as aircraft, relief supplies and tonnage delivered -- the generals are still reluctant to grant visas to foreign aid workers.
The few who have managed to get into Myanmar on a tourist visa are being denied special permits to travel to the worst-affected areas. UN information officer Aye Win doesn’t understand the government’s attitude.
“We need a lot more expertise,” he says. “We need international experts to come in to be able to manage the situation better. The more expertise we can get on the ground, the faster we can help the people that are in need.”
But Aye Win, who is himself Burmese, is careful to not be too critical of the junta and quickly adds: “The UN is certainly not in the job of bashing the government.”
He points out that the government is not hampering the UN transports. He adds that he strongly believes the military is doing its best to help Myanmar’s citizens.
But however good-willed the government might be, it doesn’t seem equipped to cope with a catastrophe of this scale.