Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today registered his “immense frustration” with the pace of relief efforts following the cyclone in Myanmar last week, and called on the Government to do everything it could to prevent the disaster from becoming even more serious.
“I want to register my deep concern – and immense frustration – at the unacceptably slow response to this grave humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Ban said today, speaking at a press conference in New York. “Unless more aid gets into the country – very quickly – we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s crisis,” he added. “I therefore call, in the most strenuous terms, on the Government of Myanmar to put its people’s lives first. It must do all that it can to prevent the disaster from becoming even more serious.”
International relief agencies estimate that around 1.5 million people are at severe risk following Cyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar on 2 May, while the official death toll reported by the Government has reached almost 32,000, with over 34,000 others missing.
Last week the UN called on the Government to allow aid workers to enter the country more speedily and said that some international relief supplies were being held up at Myanmar’s main airport. Today, Mr. Ban said there were “encouraging signs” that the Government had “made some initial moves to ease access restrictions.” He said many aid airlifts had arrived over the weekend and today, but added that, “much more is needed.”
While the UN and international aid agencies were “well positioned” to help tackle the emergency, Mr. Ban said that staff on the ground “were grievously overstretched and the Government continues to deny visas to most foreign aid workers.”
The Secretary-General said that the UN has been able to reach less than a third of the people at risk – about 270,000 people. He said that the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that the amount of food allowed into the country so far was less than one-tenth of what is needed, while rice stocks within Myanmar were close to exhaustion.
Mr. Ban said he had tried repeatedly over the weekend and last week to telephone Myanmar’s senior General Than Shwe, but had not been able to reach him, so he had delivered a second letter to him through diplomatic channels. The Secretary-General called on the Government to set up major logistics operations to deliver supplies to the most affected areas. He said that “this required the specialized expertise of the major international relief agencies. Myanmar cannot do it alone.”
On Friday, the UN launched a flash appeal asking for $187 to provide urgently needed relief though key UN and other aid agencies. Mr. Ban added that the UN was planning to set up a logistics base in the area, probably in Thailand, to make sure that aid would be “channelled into Myanmar in a systematic and orderly way.”
The UN has identified food, water purification supplies, sanitation facilities, shelter, fuel and essential medical supplies as crucial needs for Myanmar following the disaster. With heavy rain forecast for the near future, aid officials are concerned that exposed populations will face a worsening situation in the days to come.
Speaking about his appeal for a speedier response, Mr. Ban said, “I emphasize that this is not about politics. It is about saving people’s lives. There is absolutely no time to lose.”
Speaking at the same press conference, the UN’s top relief official said that reports from Myanmar indicate that people in the flooded Irrawaddy delta region, which was struck hardest by Cyclone Nargis, had now concentrated in towns and villages on higher ground.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said this would make it easier for agencies to deliver aid to large numbers of people, but that it also increased the risk of infectious disease.
Mr. Holmes said that an increasing number of flights delivering aid were now entering the country, and other relief had begun arriving by sea and land. He said that 34 new visas were now being granted for UN international relief workers, but he added that, while this was welcome, it was “clearly nothing like enough for the scale of the problem we’re trying to deal with.”
At another briefing with journalists held today in Bangkok, Thailand, Richard Horsey, spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA) said it was “a major logistical challenge to get goods out to the delta” and that there was an “important bottleneck” at Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, which was making it difficult to move relief supplies out into the field.
Despite the difficulties, UN agencies report that they have been active on the ground. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says it has begun setting up “child-friendly spaces” in camps where people are sheltering, to ensure that children receive care and protection. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is using boats and vehicles to provide immediate assistance to people in 19 locations in the affected area. The World Food Programme (WFP) has reached 27,000 people in the Irrawaddy delta with crucial food supplies and the World Health Organization (WHO) has deployed experts to support Government relief efforts and to supply emergency health kits.
Meanwhile 20 tons of shelter supplies – plastic sheets and tents – have arrived in Yangon on two trucks sent from the Thai-Myanmar border by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).