Myanmar: progress on aid but access for internationals still a challenge

Myanmar: progress on aid but access for internationals still a challenge

Food aid being distributed to the affected population.
Aid deliveries to the victims of Cyclone Nargis have stepped up in recent days but access for international workers to the worst affected areas in Myanmar remains a challenge, according to United Nations aid agencies.

More than 1.3 million people, or about 50 per cent of the population, in the badly hit Ayeyarwady Delta area have received some kind of humanitarian assistance, but the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the relief operation still needs to be scaled up.

“We want better access for international aid workers, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Red Cross Movement, both in terms of visas to get into the country, but also in terms of more consistent access to the delta areas,” OCHA spokesperson Amanda Pitt told reporters today in Bangkok.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says it had been able to increase supplies into the delta area recently now that it has three operating hubs in Labutta, Bogale and Pyapon.

With its partners dispatching greater numbers of small boats to deliver directly to villages, WFP has supplied 8,500 tons of food (mainly rice), enough to feed about 750,000 people.

WFP has also started operating one helicopter out of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, while it hopes to have nine additional helicopters ready in Bangkok by the end of the week.

Despite the progress, WFP spokesperson Paul Risley said that access for international staff in the Delta area “remains a challenge.”

Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that Monday was the first day back at school for children in the cyclone-affected area, though eight townships had not reopened schools as yet.

Spokesperson Michael Bociurkiw said that about 1,200 schools were completely destroyed, 800 were severely damaged and almost 2,000 had lost their roofs.

“The best way we can put it is that this was really a children’s catastrophe in terms of the damage to infrastructure that kids access – we are talking about schools, health clinics and play areas,” he said, adding that UNICEF has been moving quickly to rehabilitate school buildings.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) announced a six-month early recovery package aimed at supporting about 100,000 survivors of the cyclone, through cash grants and cash-for-work projects.

The scheme aims to assist landless, poor people who depend on seasonal jobs. The cash-for-work initiatives will be used to clear and renovate villages as well as to help farmers plant crops or set-up small businesses.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says there is an urgent need to help farmers sow rice seedlings by the end of July at the latest to avoid further serious economic impact on rural areas and the country as a whole.

FAO has carried out an assessment of agriculture in the affected areas over the past month. Preliminary results indicate that about 60 per cent of the paddy fields in the delta have been affected by the cyclone and that 16 per cent of the area has been seriously damaged because of high salinity or flooding with dirty water.

FAO spokesperson Hiroyuki Konuma said that most of the area can be cultivated for rice, but he cautioned that there are still many obstacles before rice cultivation can begin.

“In some areas farmers have returned and have started some cultivation, but many areas are still empty and farmers have not yet come back because of a lack of shelter or lack of food,” he said.

He added that seeds would need to be provided by external sources, since the majority were washed away, lost or damaged. In addition about 20 per cent of draft animals, particularly oxen and water buffaloes, had died.

Mr. Konuma said that FAO had already started buying seeds, fertilizer and agricultural tools.