Relief efforts in Myanmar a battle against time

May 13th, 2008 - 9:06 am ICT by admin  

By Johanna Marten
Yangon, May 13 (DPA) The rain came down so forcefully that people’s skin suffered bruises. Yet they survived and are among the lucky ones in the Irrawaddy river delta region in southern Myanmar, where tropical Cyclone Nargis wreaked the most havoc May 2-3. The survivors are left with nothing. There is no electricity, no drinking water, no medicine. Many of the traumatised victims haven’t eaten for several days.

The flood wave brought on by the cyclone has made drinking water sources non-potable. Corpses still litter the jungle. The situation is a nightmare.

Relief workers are concerned that even more people might die through the outbreak of diseases and that the death toll eventually might exceed that of the 2004 tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. Diarrhoea, fever and wounds need to be treated urgently.

The river delta now resembles a vast mud plain.

“The situation is completely out of control,” said Saw Simon Tha, a doctor at a local hospital that is trying to treat thousands of desperate survivors.

Hundreds of patients are crammed and often only half-conscious on the floor, as secretly-shot footage by the BBC has documented.

Many people arrive with broken bones and severely infected wounds.

“We have countless patients and no medications,” the doctor said.

The non-governmental organisation Medecines sans Frontiers (MSF), which has been active in Myanmar since 1992, has dispatched some 100 personnel to the delta to assist an estimated 50,000 survivors.

The region is difficult to reach. Tarpaulins, rice and medical equipment first have to be transported on trucks, then relief workers and supplies have to be loaded on boats, and then, finally, by motorcycle.

“And all of this has to be accomplished as fast as possible,” said Juli Niebuhr, a MSF vice programme coordinator, in Yangon, the former capital previously known as Rangoon.

However, she assured that all goods definitely reach the survivors.

But the news that Niebuhr has received from colleagues in the delta is nevertheless devastating.

“Many villages have vanished completely,” she said. Often, only five to 10 villagers have survived.

“The storm damage in areas that have not been flooded is incredible,” she said.

Although no epidemics are known to have broken out so far, the risk remained high, she added.

The situation in the river delta might worsen as meteorologists have predicted more heavy rainfall in the region this week.

The relief organization Oxfam considers it only a matter of time until diseases will break out.

“More than 100,000 people have died so far, and all signs hint at yet another catastrophe, which might increase that figure 15-fold,” said Sarah Ireland, Oxfam’s East Asia director, in Bangkok.

Many volunteers have been waiting in Bangkok or Yangon for the past few days to be dispatched to where they’re most needed.

One of them is Gerald Ripberger, a physician, who is familiar with the dangers in disaster areas.

“The tropical humidity and temperatures lets bacteria multiply very fast, and wounds can become infected very easily. Antibiotics are our greatest need,” the 33-year-old said.

Apart from that, electrolyte infusions are also needed. Diarrhoea is particularly dangerous for infants.

Myanmar’s military regime in the meantime has come under intense international criticism, because it has hampered relief workers or even refused them entry visas.

Organisations that already were present in the country before the cyclone have encountered fewer obstacles.

But their personnel refrain from getting involved in political discussions and keep a low profile in order to not jeopardise their relief efforts.
DPA

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