Burma (Myanmar) cyclone interim report: Aftermath less dire than predicted

A survey by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the UN, and the Burmese government finds that most of the hardest-hit villages have received some emergency aid. But many people are living hand-to-mouth and have limited access to clean water.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Nearly two months after a deadly cyclone ripped through Burma (Myanmar), an international assessment suggests that its impact, while immensely destructive, hasn't led to a feared second wave of fatalities. But survivors will require substantially more assistance to rebuild their communities, a move that may test the appetite of Burma's isolated military rulers for large-scale foreign aid.

The survey's findings are preliminary, but appear to square with what humanitarian workers have been saying in recent weeks. Despite hold-ups in international aid deliveries, the vast majority of villages in the Irrawaddy Delta that bore the brunt of the storm have received some form of emergency aid. Many are living hand-to-mouth and have limited access to clean water, though, and with three in five villages lacking seeds for the current planting season, food aid will likely be needed for several months.

"The scale of this disaster is huge and the scale of the response is still only gearing up. The gap compared to other disasters is still quite big," says Richard Blewitt, a survey team leader and a veteran relief worker.

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which carried out the survey jointly with Burma's government and the United Nations, presented its findings on Tuesday at a closed-door meeting in Rangoon (Yangon), the former capital. The same day, Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu told reporters the death toll from the May 2-3 cyclone stood at 84,500 people, up from just under 78,000, with a further 55,000 listed as missing. Mr. Blewitt said the survey didn't collect data on fatalities.

In the cyclone's aftermath, when Burmese authorities turned away Western military relief teams and blocked foreign aid workers from the disaster zone, international criticism hit a crescendo. Among Burma's critics was the Bush administration, which already shuns the regime for its repressive politics. Four weeks after the cyclone, Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused the regime of "criminal neglect" by blocking foreign aid.

This belief was shared by UN officials and private relief agencies, who warned that delayed international assistance meant many more lives lost. But ASEAN officials involved in the survey, from which data is still being reviewed, say dire predictions of disease and starvation haven't been born out. One reason, these officials say, has been the flow of relief supplies and other forms of help from Burmese citizens, private businesses, and faith groups, as well as local and national government agencies. Little of this aid is coordinated, making it hard to quantify its reach. For its part, the UN estimates that international agencies have reached 730,000 people.

Another reason, according to those involved in relief efforts, was the ability of stricken communities to pick themselves up, a response shaped by the near-absence of most government services in Burma.

"Fortunately, we did not see a secondary wave of deaths, and I think this was largely due, in part, to the resiliency of these people…. I've seen this after many disasters. People will rally together and help each other out," says Melanie Brooks, a spokesperson for Care.

Critics of Burma's junta say this week's better-than-expected relief snapshot doesn't excuse its past intransigence or continued restrictions on foreign agencies. International pressure on the regime, even if the rhetoric was sometimes overheated, also helped to crack open the door to foreign aid, they contend. Still, the worst-case scenario hasn't played out.

"It does seem in retrospect that between what the organized international community was doing, plus what private volunteers and the government were doing, they more or less reached people," says Shari Villarosa, the top US diplomat in Burma.

Last week, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 570,000 hectares of rice fields in disaster zone had been flooded, which could dock the current rice crop by half a million tons. This amount, while a heavy blow to the local economy, only constitutes around 2 percent of Burma's annual output of its staple.

The ASEAN-UN joint assessment will form the basis of a revised UN fund-raising appeal in early July, which is expected to rise substantially from the current $201 million target for relief operations. UN officials say they have received about two-thirds of that target. Last month, Burma asked an international donors' conference in Rangoon for nearly $11 billion for long-term reconstruction, without offering any details of how they reached that figure.

Donors have asked to see an independent assessment before they commit more funds, said Anish Kumar Roy, a senior ASEAN official. The survey was conducted over 10 days in 380 villages around the delta that were selected by the team and where they received unfettered access, he said. "Now we have a very credible assessment that the international community cannot doubt," he says.

Among its preliminary findings was that buildings in the storm's path took a severe pounding. Nearly 60 percent of homes were destroyed and 1,640 schools will probably need to be replaced. Many people have begun to replace their homes with less-durable bamboo structures, though, in an indication of how swiftly communities have begun to rebuild.

Officials said only six of the villages surveyed had received no outside help. Relief agencies were alerted and have since delivered supplies. But while the various relief operations appear to have reached most people, many families struggle to get enough to eat and have few food stocks.

A parallel goal to fighting hunger should be helping stricken communities to rebuild their livelihoods to avoid prolonged dependency on food aid, says Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children, which has 400 staff in the disaster area and has begun to recruit 1,600 more.

"People are saying we need food, we have some immediate needs. But what we really need is assistance to get back on our feet, because we don't want to rely on handouts…. I think it's incumbent now on the international community to reach into their pockets and help people do that," he says.

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