UN says, million cyclone survivors still without aid
BANGKOK : At least one million survivors remain without aid more than a week after a deadly cyclone ripped through Myanmar, the UN said Saturday, with emergency supply shipments still held up by the country.
Aid officials say time is running out for thousands of people in the southwest delta who are desperately waiting for food, drinking water and medicine, and that the government is not acting quickly enough.
High-energy biscuits that could feed 95,000 people are stuck in Yangon airport, while few visas have been given to increasingly frustrated aid workers, said Richard Horsey, spokesman for the UN's emergency relief arm.
"Approaching half a million beneficiaries have been reached (by UN agencies), but that's of between 1.5 to 2.0 million we've now estimated as severely affected," he said.
"At this stage we've only reached a quarter of people with any form of relief goods," he said, calling that "clearly way too slow".
State media said 60,000 people were killed or left missing when Cyclone Nargis ripped through the country's southwest last weekend, while foreign officials estimate the death toll at closer to 100,000.
UN officials have said they fear that toll could climb if the people in need of help are not reached soon, especially with more bad weather approaching.
"With major rainfall predicted, starting over the weekend, this is a very grave concern," said Horsey. "It's a race against time."
The World Food Programme (WFP) said Saturday that two planeloads of emergency food remained impounded by customs at Yangon airport, nearly 36 hours after the biscuits arrived in Yangon.
"My understanding is that it has not yet been released into our hands, but we are working around the clock to get access," said Marcus Prior, a Bangkok-based spokesman for WFP.
The junta has said they will accept money and aid, but want to distribute all the aid themselves, despite the country's woeful infrastructure.
Prior said that two more relief flights coordinated by WFP were due to land in Yangon on Saturday, and they were still negotiating with the government to ensure they could monitor the distribution of food, shelter and medicine.
"It is frustrating but that doesn't mean we're going to throw up our hands and give up. To the contrary, we're going to work harder," Prior said.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR sent a convoy of aid trucks over the Thai-Myanmar border Saturday, which is expected to reach Yangon in two days, where it will be handed over to the government.
"We're hoping that the authorities will keep their word and give us access to monitor the distribution of these materials," Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told AFP in the border town of Mae Sot.
UN children's agency UNICEF had three million water purification tablets arrive on a Thai Airways flight on Friday, but it was unclear if this much-needed supply had yet left Yangon airport.
Shantha Bloemen, UNICEF spokeswoman in Bangkok, said only that the supplies were going through "normal channels".
"I think it usually takes a day or two ... The government has not changed their procedures," she said.
"We need to get this working like a normal relief operation."
A charter plane carrying food, shelter and medicine for medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was also due to land Saturday.
"We have permission from them (the government) to land. Then we need to see what will happen," said MSF spokeswoman Veronique Terrasse.
MSF also has about 25 staff on stand-by around the world to help the relief effort in Myanmar, with no indication yet on whether visas would be granted -- a common situation for most aid agencies, Horsey said.
"We're dealing with lots of bureaucracy, we're dealing with a lot of red tape, and possibly we're dealing with an environment where the authorities aren't fully open to a relief effort of this kind," Horsey told AFP.
"That's very frustrating -- it's hampering the relief effort."