Aid workers fear Burma cyclone deaths will top 50,000

May 7, 2008

RANGOON (Times Online) -- Foreign aid workers in Burma have concluded that as many as 50,000 people died in Saturday’s cyclone, and two to three million are homeless, in a disaster whose scale invites comparison with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The official death count after Cyclone Nargis is 15,000, and the Thai Foreign Minister says he has been told that 30,000 people are missing. But due to the incompleteness of the information from the stricken Irrawaddy delta, UN and charity workers in the city of Rangoon privately believe that the number will eventually be several times higher.
Andrew Kirkwood, country director of the British charity Save The Children told The Times: “I’d characterize it as unprecedented in the history of Myanmar and on an order of magnitude with the effect of the tsunami on individual countries. It might well be more dead than the tsunami caused in Sri Lanka.
“We are looking at 50,000 dead and millions homeless. The power is off, most people don't have water. They are relying on wells, and getting it out of the Inle Lake which is not clean. There is a risk of disease - if people are living together in close proximity then an outbreak of diarrhea is just a matter of time.”
The death toll in Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004 was 31,000, second only to the 131,000 who died on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Eleven countries were affected.
Four days after the Burma cyclone, which struck the flat agricultural area south of Rangoon, there is wretchedly little hard information about the victims.
Seven townships have been designated as “priority one” disaster areas, because between 90 to 95 per cent of the buildings have been destroyed. “Anything less than 60 per cent destroyed is not being counted as a priority at this stage by the government, which gives some indication of the scale of the problem,” said Mr. Kirkwood.
According to the Burmese Government’s figures at least 10,000 people have died in the town of Bogalay alone.
Foreign aid agencies have reported scenes of devastation, with corpses still littering the rice fields and desperate survivors without food or clean drinking water. They are either without shelter or crammed into whatever buildings remain standing.
Burma's junta refused foreign aid after the 2004 tsunami, in which between 60 and 600 of its citizens are reported to have died, but this time the sheer scale of the slowly emerging disaster seems to have forced it to change its mind. “We will welcome help . . . from other countries because our people are in difficulty,” said Nyah Win, the Burmese Foreign Minister, in a rare television appearance.
Cyclone Nargis ripped across Burma's agricultural heartland with violent winds that reached speeds of 120mph (193km/h), destroying buildings and fields, toppling trees and washing away roads in the vital rice-growing area of the Irrawaddy delta.
It flattened shanty towns and downed power and phone lines in the sprawling port city of Rangoon, Burma's former capital and home to 5 million people.
The town-by-town list of dead and missing announced by Mr. Win showed 14,859 deaths in the rural and remote Irrawaddy delta, with about two thirds of the fatalities in Bogalay, 90km (55 miles) southwest of Rangoon. Most apparently died in the 12ft storm surge wave that accompanied the cyclone, it was reported.
There were 59 deaths reported in Rangoon, where Tuesday people could be seen in long queues for bottled water. Phones were down and there was still no electricity.
“Generators are selling very well under the generals,” said one man waiting outside a shop, reflecting resentment on the streets to what many described as a slow warning and response.
Residents said that very few soldiers were seen clearing debris in Rangoon, except at the main road intersections. The task of clearing fallen trees fell to monks and local people, using what tools they had.
“The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people,” commented one retired civil servant in Rangoon.
Bernard Delpuech, a European Union aid official in Rangoon, said that the junta has sent three ships carrying food to the delta region, which is the rice production centre for Burma’s 53 million people. Nearly half the population live in the five disaster-hit states.
UN agencies have handed out what supplies they had from stockpiles in Burma, and are preparing to fly in further emergency food, shelter and medicines to prevent epidemics and starvation inflicting a second disaster.
Aid is being airlifted and sent by sea from neighboring countries. Noppadol Pattama, Thailand’s foreign minister, said after a meeting with Burma’s ambassador to Bangkok that he’d been told 30,000 people were missing. “The losses have been much greater than we anticipated,” Mr. Noppadol said.
World Vision, a charity in Australia, said that it was among several aid organizations to be granted special visas to send in more personnel to back up its existing 600 staff in Burma -- a move that it said was unprecedented. “This shows how grave it is in the Burmese government’s mind,” said Tim Costello, the Australia head of World Vision. “This is massive. It is not necessarily quite tsunami level, but in terms of impact of millions displaced, thousands dead, it is just terrible.”
The generals have, however, turned down an offer from the U.S. State Department of $250,000 (£125,000) in help and a disaster assistance team, suggesting that it remains selective about whom it accepts. The refusal prompted a sharp rebuke from Laura Bush, the U.S. first lady, who urged the generals not to hinder the relief effort. “The United States stands prepared to provide an assistance team and much-needed supplies to Burma, as soon as the Burmese Government accepts our offer,” she said.
Tuesday, the generals lifted the state of emergency in three of the five worst-affected states, and also in parts of Rangoon and Irrawaddy, and announced that there was no immediate food crisis in Burma. “I think there was some damage to rice stored by private merchants and growers, but we have enough surplus for domestic sufficiency,” said Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, the Burmese Information Minister, at a press conference in Rangoon.
The United Nations World Food Program fears that the cyclone and flooding in two major rice growing areas could also affect food supply in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The generals confirmed that a controversial referendum on Burma's new constitution, part of its “roadmap to democracy”, will go ahead on May 10, although they conceded that it would have to be delayed by two weeks in Rangoon and Irrawaddy states until May 24.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned Burmese opposition leader, has urged followers to boycott the referendum, saying that the draft constitution leaves power still in the hands of the military.
The junta has moved even further into the shadows in the last six months due to widespread outrage at its bloody crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September.
The U.S. and EU states have imposed economic sanctions. In the past, humanitarian aid programs have also been limited because of fears that they would benefit the generals. -