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Ban Ki-moon to send UN humanitarian chief to Myanmar

Ban Ki-moon to send UN humanitarian chief to Myanmar

Villagers use bleaching powder to purify contaminated pond water in Kawhmu Township
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he plans to send the United Nations’ highest-ranking aid official to Myanmar to boost efforts to tackle the crisis caused by Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country at the beginning of the month.

Speaking to reporters in New York last night, after a meeting with members of ASEAN, the Association of South-east Asian Nations, on the situation in Myanmar, Mr. Ban said there was “a sense of great urgency” and that much more needed to be done.

“The first few days, even a few more hours, will be crucially important in reaching these needy people with the necessary relief items and humanitarian goods,” he said.

Mr. Ban said that during the meeting he and the ASEAN officials discussed appointing a joint UN/ASEAN humanitarian coordinator, as well as establishing a regional hub for aid supplies outside Myanmar and also holding a high-level pledging conference.

The Secretary-General said he had assured ASEAN members that the question of aid for Myanmar would not be politicized and that he would lead the effort in “a purely, genuinely humanitarian” way. He added that he was encouraged that the Government of Myanmar had shown flexibility.

Up to 2.5 million people are estimated to have been severely affected by the cyclone since it struck on 2 May, with the Irrawaddy delta area among the hardest-hit areas. The UN says the death toll could rise as high as 100,000 or even higher. More than half a million people are reported to have gathered in improvised camps scattered across the delta region and there is growing concern about outbreaks of disease.

UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), have mounted a major effort to ferry in relief supplies, including tarpaulins and plastic sheeting, water purification tablets and water treatment equipment, 700 tons of rice, high-energy biscuits and beans, as well as emergency health kits reaching at least 100,000 people.

Mobile clinics and open hospitals are treating people for diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections and injuries. UNICEF and Myanmar’s health ministry are also carrying out measles and tetanus vaccinations, as well as giving Vitamin A supplements to young children in temporary settlements.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that the depletion of mangrove forests in the delta area could have contributed to the destruction caused by the cyclone. The mangrove area in the delta is now less than half the size it was in 1975.

The FAO said that intact and dense coastal vegetation can reduce the impacts of waves and currents associated with a storm surge and said that lessons learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami suggest that much can be done to improve the sustainability of mangrove forests along coastal areas.

In recent years mangroves have been converted into agricultural land and fish ponds, and settlements have been established closer to the sea in the Irrawaddy delta area.