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UN foresees ‘second catastrophe’ for Myanmar

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eTN Staff writer  May 14, 2008

Unless more access to the country is granted to allow aid more quickly, a second catastrophe could result, Elizabeth Byrs of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in Geneva yesterday.

Despite some progress, efforts to help the 1.5 million people impacted by Cyclone Nargis must be enhanced, she observed. Some 12 days after the cyclone stuck Myanmar, the UN and its partners have reached 270,000 at-risk people, less than a third of those affected. Heavy rains have been forecast, further impeding aid efforts, Ms. Byrs noted. She called for an air and sea corridor to channel aid in large quantities as quickly as possible.

The official death toll reported by the government has reached almost 32,000, with over 34,000 others missing.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday voiced his “immense frustration” with the slow pace of relief efforts and called on the South-East Asian nation’s authorities to do the most it can to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

Ms. Byrs said, however, that there have been some encouraging signs, with the government making some initial moves to ease restrictions. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said yesterday that 34 new visas had been granted to UN personnel, but Ms. Byrs said that this is not enough to respond to a disaster of this magnitude.

“Unless more aid gets into the country – very quickly – we face an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dwarf today’s crisis,” Ki-moon stressed in a press conference at UN Headquarters in New York Monday. “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.”

The UN refugee agency announced today that more than 40 tons of its shelter supplies – including plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets and tents – have reached Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city in the past 24 hours.

Half of these items were airlifted in from Dubai. “Our staff are at the Yangon airport to claim the items for immediate dispatch to areas affected by the cyclone,” said Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The other half of the supplies were driven in overland from the Thai-Myanmar border in two trucks, carrying items from UNHCR’s stockpiles for refugee camps along the Thai border, in a two-day journey through heavy rains.

The agency immediately handed the items, expected to benefit 10,000 people, over to non-governmental and community-based organizations to be distributed in the hardest-hit areas of Yangon and the Irrawaddy delta.

UNHCR expects another round of supplies – including 4,500 plastic sheets, 17,000 blankets, some 1,500 kitchen sets and 75 mosquito nets – which arrived in the agency’s first airlift from Dubai last weekend - to be rushed to the outskirts of Yangon and to Bogale and Laputto in the Irrawaddy delta.

Another flight from Dubai is expected by mid-week, and a fourth is being planned, and UNHCR is also seeking supplies in the region to quickly send to Yangon.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Program (WFP) has sent more than 360 metric tons of food aid, of which 175 tons has been distributed. Only half of the rice necessary to feed 750,000 people for three months can be procured in Myanmar.

For its part, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has flown in medical supplies for tens of thousands of people and is monitoring for communicable disease outbreaks in the wake of the May 2 cyclone.

The agency said that while diarrhea and dysentery cases have been reported, there have been no confirmed cases of cholera. Immediate efforts are centering on caring and treating the injured and preventing communicable diseases.

WHO personnel, including 11 international staff, are operating in Myanmar, and eight emergency health kits – each able to treat 10,000 people for three months – have been delivered to the affected areas.

On 9 May, the UN launched a flash appeal for $187 to provide urgently needed relief though key UN and other aid agencies.

The UN has identified food, water purification supplies, sanitation facilities, shelter, fuel and essential medical supplies as crucial needs for Myanmar following the disaster.

Source: United Nations

UN foresees ‘second catastrophe’ for Myanmar
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