Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Cyclone Nargis devastates Burma

The official death toll for Burma’s Cyclone Nargis is likely to triple in the next few days. While current rough estimates are that over 15,000 people are dead, there are still another 30,000 people missing and a million more left homeless. Burma is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the cyclone with serious power shortages, lack of drinking water and the threat of disease all hampering rescue efforts. Large areas of the country are cut off with no communication to the outside world.

The director for the World Food Programme in Burma, Chris Raye, said information about the destruction in the low lying Irrawaddy Delta was still scanty, but it was clear it was a disaster on a very large scale. Raye said that unless the region had quick access to shelter, water and sanitation, the situation would deteriorate further. "We have a major humanitarian catastrophe in our hands,” he said. “The numbers of people in need are still to be determined, but I'm sure we're talking of hundreds and thousands.”

Several coastal villages were completely destroyed by the brunt of the storm and a sea surge. Burmese foreign minister Nyan Win said that 10,000 deaths alone (two thirds of all reported casualties) occurred in the coastal township of Bogolay which bore the brunt of the cyclone’s onslaught. Casualties also numbered in their thousands in nearby Labutta. The coastline was inundated by 3.5 metre waves which swept away most of the houses and gave their residents to chance to flee.

Despite government misgivings about admitting foreign organisations, a massive multinational rescue operation is now underway. International and local Red Cross teams were distributing essential supplies and bringing in more from Malaysia. "We're distributing supplies for those who need shelter, plastic sheeting to cover roofs, water purification tablets,” said a spokesman. “We are currently procuring 5,000 litres of water, cooking items, bednets, blankets and clothes for those in most need."

Their efforts will need reinforcing. The first cyclone of the 2008 season was a devastating one for Burma. Cyclone Nargis made landfall late Friday with sustained winds of up to 210kph and gusts of 240kph, the equivalent of a strong category three hurricane. Nargis came ashore across the Mouths of the Irrawaddy and followed the coastline northeast flooding the entire coastal plain. The fallow agricultural areas were especially hard hit. The capital Rangoon and its population of four million are almost completely surrounded by floods.

Eyewitness accounts at Birma News report that entire communities near Rangoon have been washed away. One resident said rooftops have been blown away and people have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. Another said all the trees have been uprooted, power lines are down and all the pagodas in the city are closed. A third said the uprooted trees have made most city streets impassable. Burmese TV footage on Youtube shows the extent of the damage in the capital:

With telephone lines out of order in the entire Irrawaddy delta region, eye-witness accounts are the only way of assessing the scale of the damage. In the delta township of Day Da Ye, 40km south of the capital, one man reported hundreds of bodies littering the streets. He saw firsthand the bodies of humans and animals along the main road through Day Da Ye while on his way to Rangoon.

The cyclone will have serious impact beyond the immediate region. Food prices in Rangoon and elsewhere have soared by up to 100 per cent since the storm, adding to the burden of millions of the country’s poor. The delta is Burma’s main rice-producing region and large areas of cropland were destroyed. Burma is a key rice exporter and the UN has questioned whether it will now be able to meet commitments to supply the staple to neighbouring Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, warning of "potentially serious effects". The price of rice has trebled across Asia this year, hitting a record $25 per 50 kilos in the week before the storm. Nargis will pile more misery on the poor of Asia.

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