Aid gathers steam to cyclone-hit Myanmar, snags persist

May 12th, 2008 - 5:26 pm ICT by admin  

Bangkok/Yangon, May 12 (DPA) An international emergency aid push for about 1.9 million Myanmar villagers and farmers whose lives were devastated by Cyclone Nargis gathered steam Monday as planeloads of goods arrived in Yangon, but agencies still complained of a lack of visas for foreign aid workers. The first of three cargo planes with a total of 110 tonnes of food, tents, medical supplies, drugs, and pumps and generators for water and sanitation systems from Doctors Without Borders arrived in Yangon Monday morning, Veronique Terrasse, spokeswoman for the aid group, said in Bangkok.

Meanwhile, a US Air Force C-130 cargo plane departed U-Tapao Airbase in Thailand, carrying 12,670 kg of water, mosquito nets and bedding for neighbouring Myanmar.

“This is a small salve for a much larger wound,” US Ambassador to Thailand Eric John said from U-Tapao, 120 km south-east of Bangkok.

John praised Thailand for allowing the kingdom to be used as a launch pad for emergency aid to Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, and called on Myanmar’s ruling generals to facilitate the relief effort by granting visas to international disaster experts.

“In addition to supplies, it is absolutely crucial that response experts be allowed into Burma to help those struggling with the devastation that affects them,” the diplomat said.

The aid deliveries represented a small start of a potentially massive relief effort to provide food, water, shelter and medicines to those affected by Nargis, which slammed into the country May 2 and 3, leaving up to 100,000 dead, according to UN figures.

The government estimated the death toll at 28,458 with 33,416 missing, according to state-run television.

Myanmar’s ruling junta last week officially welcomed international aid in the catastrophic wake of the cyclone, but the country’s xenophobic regime has thrown up obstacles to the aid effort, such as seizing a supply of high-energy biscuits from the World Food Programme Friday at Yangon International Airport because Myanmar officers wanted to distribute the aid themselves and refusing to grant visas to relief experts from the UN and aid agencies.

“We’re still waiting for information on the visas,” World Food Programme spokesman Marcus Prior said in Bangkok.

Disaster relief experts have warned that Myanmar faces a “health catastrophe” unless measures are taken quickly to prevent outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and other diseases associated with poor sanitation and unburied bodies.

While efforts were slowed last week by the military, which was preoccupied with staging a national referendum Saturday to endorse a new constitution that would effectively cement its political dominance over future elected governments, a small flow of emergency aid has started to reach affected areas in the countryside.

The UN’s World Food Programme, for instance, had stockpiles of 800 tonnes of food inside Myanmar, which it started distributing to the needy last week. The agency brought in at least eight flights of emergency goods, including more than 55 tonnes of biscuits, last week.

Yangon airport authorities allowed the delivery of the goods to UN personnel in Myanmar over the weekend, changing their previous stance, Prior said.

Doctors Without Borders has 43 international staff and 1,200 locals already working in many of the areas hardest hit by Nargis, including Yangon, Daala, Twantey, Bogaley, Kungyangon, Pathein, Haigyi and Laputta, providing medical care, access to clean water, food and basic relief items.

But the trickle of aid getting in is minute compared with what is needed.

“More than one week after the disaster, despite the sending of three cargo planes and some positive signals, it has been very difficult to provide highly needed supplies for the heavily affected population in Myanmar,” a Doctors Without Borders statement said.

And a lot more aid could be delivered if international aid workers were granted visas to enter the country.

Doctors Without Borders said it was still awaiting the approval of dozens of visa applications for technical support staff and coordinators from Myanmar’s embassies around the world.

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