Scant Aid Reaching Burma's Delta

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Amy Kazmin and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 8, 2008

BANGKOK, May 7 -- Small quantities of drinking water, food, tents and other vital supplies reached Burma's devastated Irrawaddy Delta region Wednesday, as bodies floated uncollected in swollen rivers and sea-flooded rice paddies five days after a cyclone roared through.

Survivors, speaking in video interviews, gave harrowing accounts of clinging to the trunks of palm trees to escape swirling floodwaters and then escaping to high ground in rickety boats, the Associated Press reported. A U.S. diplomat said the human toll, now tentatively at least 22,000 dead and 40,000 missing, could reach 100,000 dead.

As evidence mounted of long-term damage to one of the world's premier rice-producing zones, international aid agencies expressed new frustration that a huge operation to help the estimated 1 million survivors is being held up by the apparent reluctance of Burma's military rulers to let foreign relief experts into the country.

Four Asian citizens who are part of a U.N. emergency team were cleared by the government to enter Burma on Thursday, but a fifth member, a Westerner, got no permission, and nearly 40 others remained uncleared, the United Nations said. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the government to speed "in every way possible" the arrival of workers and supplies in Burma, a Southeast Asian nation surrounded by India, China and Thailand.

"The government authorities have never had to deal with a disaster on this scale before, and it is imperative that the lessons from other major disasters can be applied rapidly, rather than having to be re-learnt," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

As impatience mounted, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, proposed invoking a newly established U.N. doctrine known as "responsibility to protect" in order to deliver aid directly to people without waiting for official approval.

France pressed the idea at a Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday. But China, Russia, South Africa and Vietnam blocked the initiative on grounds that the council -- which deals with threats to international peace and security -- had no business meddling in a domestic crisis.

Some U.N. officials voiced irritation with the proposal. "I'm not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option at this particular moment," said John Holmes, the chief U.N. emergency coordinator. "I'm not sure it would be helpful to the people we're actually trying to help." Burma's official name is Myanmar.

Shortly after the disaster, the Burmese military authorities said they would welcome international help. Analysts are split over whether their continuing delays are caused by the generals having trouble overcoming their traditional xenophobia, particularly toward Westerners, by simple bureaucracy, or both.

The Burmese government has said the cyclone killed at least 22,000 people, with 40,000 more unaccounted for. Shari Villarosa, head of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, told reporters Wednesday she was hearing indications that the death toll could rise to 100,000, the AP reported. She did not elaborate.

Despite the continuing uncertainty, the Rome-based U.N. World Food Program has sent four aircraft containing almost 50 tons of high-energy biscuits and other supplies from storage facilities in Bangladesh, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. Staff members of the program, which has long operated non-emergency programs in Burma, worked with private relief personnel to distribute about 90 tons of rice to destitute civilians on the outskirts of Rangoon, Burma's largest city.

City residents are facing the prospect of weeks without electricity, a worsening shortage of drinking water and spiraling food prices, as authorities slowly begin the massive task of cleaning up and repairing the city's shattered infrastructure. According to the government, 671 people were killed in and around the city.

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