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BURMA: 'Junta Aid Blocks Could Multiply Cyclone Toll'

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 11 2008 (IPS) - Burma’s military regime may soon face charges of allowing tens of thousands of its own people to die through incompetence and bureaucratic red-tape placed in the way of international relief efforts for over one million cyclone victims in the country.

Cyclone survivor cooking a meal for her family close to a carcass-ridden ditch. Credit: Mizzima News

Cyclone survivor cooking a meal for her family close to a carcass-ridden ditch. Credit: Mizzima News

A week after cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta in south-western Burma, killing close to 100,000 people and uprooting nearly 1.5 million people from their homes, the junta has only approved a trickle of emergency aid.

Absent from such assistance are teams specialised in helping to supply drinking water by cleaning and restoring the water sources in the damaged terrain. ‘’We are concerned that the people in the affected areas are not getting the quantity and quality of clean water they need,’’ says Rick Bauer, public health engineering advisor at the British development agency Oxfam. ‘’We have to assume that the people are drinking contaminated water.’’

‘’The fresh-water ponds and wells would now be contaminated by salinity, debris, dead bodies and dead animals from the cyclone,’’ he told IPS. ‘’These water sources have to be cleaned up completely.’’

Yet Oxfam, which is seen as a lead agency in such emergency settings, does not have a presence in Burma. It is still waiting for a temporary license to operate in the South-east Asian country that the notoriously oppressive military leaders have renamed Myanmar.

Oxfam has raised the alarm about the potential spike in the death toll to the already high fatalities from the May 3 natural disaster. ‘’With the likelihood of 100,000 or more killed in the cyclone, there are all the factors for a public health catastrophe which could multiply that death toll by up to 15 times in the coming period,’’ Sarah Ireland, Oxfam’s regional director for East Asia, said at a press conference here on Sunday.

Such a deadly aftermath would inevitably be blamed on the junta, since Oxfam reminded the generals that there was no man-made disaster that followed the December 2004 tsunami, which levelled the coastlines of over 10 countries in the Indian Ocean. ‘’In the Boxing Day tsunami 250,000 people lost their lives in the first few hours but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilised a massive aid effort to prevent it happening. We have to do the same for the people of Myanmar,’’ added Ireland.

In Aceh, the northern tip of Indonesia, worst hit by the tsunami and where nearly 165,000 people died, Oxfam’s water specialists hit the ground a day after the disaster and began work to supply drinking water 48 hours later. In Bangladesh, following last November’s cyclone Sidr, Oxfam had deployed its first assessment team eight hours after the cyclone struck.

Concerns about the lack of clean water in the devastated Irrawaddy delta are also echoed by World Vision, the Christian charity that is only one of three international agencies the junta has invited to help in the relief efforts. ‘’We are worried that thousands of people are drinking dirty water,’’ says James East, regional communications director of World Vision’s Asia-Pacific office.

‘’Usually, in post disaster situations, you have to get clean water to the victims very early,’’ he said in an interview. ‘’If not, people can quickly suffer from diarrhoea, dysentery and cholera.’’

Currently, World Vision is operating out of Myaung Mya, a town 50 km north of Labutta, a township in the delta that suffered the worst from the cyclone. It has set up 26 shelters across this town, which has already seen some 30,000 victims arrive desperately in search of water, food and health care.

The United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which, like World Vision, has got the nod from the junta to assist the cyclone victims, has already rushed three million water purification tablets to help some of the most vulnerable victims, the children.

The tablets, which were flown in a plane carrying other emergency supplies, has the capacity to ‘’purify three million litres of contaminated water, enough for the needs of 200,000 people for one week,’’ states the U.N. agency. ‘’With many roads still blocked by debris and fallen trees, distributing purification tablets is quicker and more practical than attempting to distribute large quantities of portable water.’’

But UNICEF is already admitting that it is racing against time, since its health specialists in the country have said that ‘’20 percent of children in the worst affected areas already have cases of diarrhoea and cases of malaria have also been reported’’.

Burma watchers, however, are hardly surprised by the junta’s visible disregard to come to the aid of the millions of its own people felled by the unprecedented natural disaster. A similar record of being slow to respond, keeping news of the disaster away from the public’s eye and turning down international assistance has been the case before.

In May 2004, for instance, the junta ‘’waited for 10 days to report publicly the 19 May 2004 cyclone in Arakan State – the worst in Western Burma in over 40 years,’’ states ALTSEAN, a South-east Asian human rights lobby. ‘’In the days following (cyclone Mala, which swept through the Irrawaddy delta in April 2006), it was reported that no relief had been organised for cyclone victims.’’

The same lack of concern for the victims was on display weeks after the December 2004 tsunami, which also hit Burma’s Irrawaddy delta. The military regime not only turned down international aid but also told the world that Burma had the resources to launch its own relief efforts.

Such accounts are being mirrored in the stories filtering out of Burma, revealing the callous mindset of the regime in response to the latest disaster. One deals with a cabinet minister who had visited an affected area in the delta where a section of a river was filled with the swollen bodies of dead people, cattle, pigs and dogs.

When he was asked by local officials about the government’s plans to clean this water source, the minister had reportedly snapped back, saying, ‘’It is not your business.’’ He added: ‘’The fish in the pond will eat the flesh and the bones will sink to the bottom of the river.’’

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