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.
State-controlled newspapers have appealed for patience and public understanding of the challenge confronting the authorities, while state television has aired images of soldiers delivering aid goods. But among middle-class residents of the colonial-era former capital, anger is growing at the military, which many people see as having been slow to respond to the catastrophe.
Five days after the storm, many residents were still working to clear away decades-old trees that once lined streets but now, fallen, choke them. "Around my neighborhood, the men are going out with saws and choppers from the kitchen," Ma Thanegi, a prominent Burmese writer, said in a telephone interview.
Ludu Sein Win, a prominent retired journalist, said by phone that "in the past, if one person came out holding a poster for a protest, dozens and dozens of soldiers and police came out in five minutes. But now nobody can help us. They say we have to do everything by ourselves."
City workers have begun the massive job of restoring the electricity system, which was totally knocked out by the cyclone, with virtually all power poles uprooted.
Without electricity, water pumps can't run, forcing households to scramble for clean drinking water.
Many of Rangoon's more affluent residents have long relied on small diesel-fueled generators to provide electricity during the lengthy power outages that plagued the city even before the disaster. Such generators can run water pumps -- if there's fuel, which is now running short.
Lining up for diesel, which has doubled in price since the disaster, can be a full-time job. "To get four gallons, you wait from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.," said one city resident.
Water trucks are selling to poorer families, but at high prices. Food prices, too, have risen rapidly in local markets, putting a huge burden on poor families.
But Ma Thanegi said she believes it is unfair for middle-class Rangoon residents to gripe, given the unprecedented scale of the disaster. "The government can't be helping the people rich enough to have phones," she said. "There are a lot of people without homes, with nothing at all. I think the government is doing the best they can with the resources, expertise and technical support they have. There is no experience of anything on this scale before."
Even before the cyclone sent a powerful tidal surge across vast swaths of the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, the region's rice production was far below inherent potential. Many economists blame the situation on state controls that they say gave farmers little incentive to boost yields. Burma had nevertheless remained self-sufficient in rice, but its exports dwindled.
The cyclone's savage harm to the delta, which normally accounts for about 65 percent of Burmese rice output, could cause food problems across the country for the foreseeable future. "It is far-reaching, really far-reaching," said one Rangoon-based agricultural expert. "The region was already underperforming, very much on the edge."
Already, rice prices in Rangoon markets have surged by nearly 50 percent. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that Burma may not meet commitments to export about 600,000 tons of rice in 2008.
The cyclone struck just as the region's paddy farmers were harvesting the dry-season crop, which accounts for about 25 percent of the country's annual production.
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the storm destroyed some rice warehouses and their contents.
Experts are concerned about the next crop. "There is a question about the ability of the rice planters to get back to cultivation," Risley said. "They've got to put their houses back together first."
Even if the farmers do plant, their efforts may produce little. The tidal surge sent seawater as far as 35 miles inland, satellite photos show, depositing salt that could make the paddies infertile.
Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma at Australia's Macquarie University and editor of Burma Economic Watch, said the region's long-neglected colonial-era irrigation systems probably took a heavy blow as well. "Rice-growing depends on being able to distribute water properly," he said. "We have seen channels and dikes, which had been slowly degrading and silting up, inundated. One can only imagine the damage has been great."
"I think the overall projection is of incredible hardship," Turnell said. "In the short term, we are going to see real shortages -- and the price of rice is going to be very high."
Lynch reported from New York.