Frustration growing at limited access to Myanmar cyclone victims – UN

8 May 2008
John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

The United Nations humanitarian chief today voiced disappointment at the limited progress made in gaining access to Myanmar, where some 1.5 million people are believed to be severely affected by the recent cyclone and the situation is becoming “increasingly desperate.”

Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in the Irrawaddy delta region on Friday, left tens of thousands of people dead in its wake and hundreds of thousands without shelter. The storm, which also hit Myanmar’s largest city Yangon later that same night, tore down trees and power lines and caused widespread flooding.

“There’s a real danger that an even worse tragedy may unfold if we cannot get the aid that’s desperately needed in quickly,” John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told journalists.

He said that while there had been a little bit of progress in gaining access to the country since he last briefed the press yesterday, much more was needed in terms of the granting of visas and easing of regulations, given the “increasingly desperate situation” on the ground.

“Frustrations have been growing that this humanitarian response is being held back because of difficulties of access in different ways,” he said, noting that many visas are still pending.

Mr. Holmes reported that two members of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team that is supposed to travel to Myanmar to coordinate relief efforts together with the national authorities are now in Yangon. However, two other members were not allowed in when they arrived “for reasons which we are still trying to establish.”

Since yesterday, the authorities have agreed that customs charges and clearances should be waived for aid delivery, he said, adding that it is not clear whether that has been made fully operational on the ground.

“I do appeal very strongly indeed to the Government of Myanmar both to step up their own relief efforts to help people on the ground and to change their attitude completely to the efforts that we are making to get these relief supplies in.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is attempting to talk to Senior General Than Swe to urge him to facilitate access. Speaking to reporters in the United States city of Atlanta, where he is on an official visit, Mr. Ban said he has been “urging the authorities of Myanmar to be flexible in opening their boundaries” so that aid workers can enter. “I am concerned that if we lose time at this very critical time, then many more people will die because of this crisis,” he stated.

In a related development, Mr. Ban has noted the Government’s decision to proceed with the constitutional referendum scheduled for 10 May, while postponing it in some of the areas most affected by the cyclone.

“Due to the scope of the disaster facing Myanmar today, however, the Secretary-General believes that it may be prudent to focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts,” his spokesperson said in a statement.

In terms of humanitarian aid getting through, Mr. Holmes reported that the UN World Food Programme (WFP) was able to get four flights containing relief supplies into Yangon today. There are now more than 40 tons of high energy biscuits available on the ground in Yangon which will be distributed as soon as possible to those that need them.

In addition, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is in the process of sending 3 million water purification tablets – enough to provide clean water to 200,000 people for a week – and have pre-positioned emergency supplies, including enough family health kits for 155,000 people.

Meanwhile, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – the only UN agency located in the Irrawaddy Delta – has sent rotating teams of national staff to four affected townships to make disaster assessments, deliver small relief items and provide support to the population UNDP serves.


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