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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 / June 28, 2008


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.

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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.

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.