Relief agencies are pleading for government cooperation in response to the devastating cyclone in Myanmar that has killed almost 4,000 people, leaving thousands missing and hundreds of thousands homeless. According to diplomats who spoke anonymously to the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said at a closed-door briefing that the death toll could rise to more than 10,000.
On Saturday Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian country with wind speeds nearing 120 miles per hour. A radio station in the capital city Naypyitaw said that 2,879 people are unaccounted for in a single town, Bogalay, which is located in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta where the storm was most damaging.
The Associated Press reports that the cyclone blew roofs off of hospitals and schools and cut electricity in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Citizens have lined up to buy candles and water. The failure of electric water pumps has left most households dry.
The ruling military junta of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has spurned the international community for decades. It appealed for aid on Monday, but the U.S. State Department said Myanmar’s government had not granted permission for a Disaster Assistance Response Team to enter the country.
According to Matthew Cochrane at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' Geneva headquarters, volunteers are already distributing some basic items. However, a Red Cross official in Bangkok said widespread destruction is hindering the distribution of aid.
The World Food Program has pre-positioned 500 tons of food in Yangon and plans to bring in more relief supplies, according to the Associated Press.
The Caritas network of Catholic aid agencies has informed CNA that it is coordinating relief efforts for its 162 national organizations and is working with staff in the region.
Caritas Internationalis Emergency Response Team Leader Dolores Halpin-Bachmann said in an e-mail that, “There is an urgent need for access to aid workers to the affected areas so that we can assess the damage, start to provide food, shelter, clean water, and medical assistance. Myanmar is a poor country and will most likely need international help to respond to a disaster on this scale.”
“We’ve only been receiving sketchy reports, but they’re enough to make us concerned about the humanitarian situation. Nagris hit a major city with a population of five million people. In that environment, we know how important it is for people to get access to clean water to stop the spread of disease.”
Halpin-Bachmann said that the first few days are “crucial” for saving lives. After the great Asia tsunami disaster in 2004, she said, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved because of “rapid and effective response” from the humanitarian community in its early stages.
“The government must do all it can to help aid workers respond,” she said.
The Myanmar government has indicated that a planned referendum on the country’s draft constitution would proceed as scheduled on May 10, though officials have said the vote could be delayed by “a few days” in the worst hit areas. Pro-democracy groups and international critics claim the proposed constitution is only a means for the ruling junta to give the appearance of democracy.