Burma cyclone death toll could hit 63,000
Burma: 60,000 feared dead in Cyclone Nargis
According to state television, 22,464 had been killed and another 41,054 were missing after cyclone Nargis barrelled into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta with 120mph winds, bringing with it an enormous storm surge that indunated towns and villages.
The social welfare minister Maung Maung Swe said that 95 per cent of houses in the delta town of Bogalay had been “destroyed”.
“More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself,” he added. “The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages. They did not have anywhere to flee.”
If previous disasters of this kind are anything to go by, few of the missing are likely to be found alive, and if anything the toll could rise further. Around one million people were estimated to be homeless.
But despite the scale of the devastation, Burma’s military junta — the country has been under a dictatorship for 46 years — were obstructing the entry of foreign aid personnel and supplies.
“The United Nations is asking the Burmese government to open its doors. The Burmese government replies: ‘Give us money, we’ll distribute it.’ We can’t accept that,” said the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who is a co-founder of the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres.
A UN disaster assessment team was stuck in Thailand overnight, unable to obtain visas, and the Burmese embassy in Bangkok was closed on Monday for a Thai holiday.
Countries around the world are offering help, but have yet to be invited in by the authorities, and aid agencies say that their staff are still waiting for visas.
In New York, Rashid Khalikov, the UN’s humanitarian affairs co- ordinator, appealed to Burma to drop visa requirements for UN aid staff.
“Unfortunately we cannot tell you how many people are in need of assistance,” he said. “We just clearly understand that it will probably be in the hundreds of thousands.”
But if visas were not forthcoming there were few alternatives, he said. “The backup plan is to urge (the government) to issue visas.”
Burma’s rulers are deeply suspicious of the outside world, particularly the West, but after years of mismanagement, corruption and self-imposed economic isolation, the country’s infrastructure is creaking at the best of times, and their ability to distribute huge quantities of supplies across a vast area in dire circumstances is highly questionable.
One aircraft arrived in Rangoon from Thailand with nine tonnes of food and medicine, but had to be unloaded by hand as no forklift trucks were available.
The World Food Programme began distributing 800 tons of food — a tiny amount relative to the scale of the disaster – in Rangoon, where supplies are running short, but its country director Chris Kaye said: “In order to meet the needs of the persons most badly affected by the disaster, much more cooperation will be required in the short term.”
The military government said a constitutional referendum that is part of its so-called “roadmap to democracy” would go ahead this weekend, except in the worst-affected areas. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy, which won elections in 1990 but has never been allowed to take power, said the decision was “extremely unacceptable”.
But analysts said the vote could give ordinary Burmese a safe way to protest against the generals’ handling of the disaster, after their bloody crackdown on protesting monks and civilians last year.
“The juxtaposition of the cyclone and the voting might cause many in Burma to feel this is an indication that the military should not be in power,” said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
Many Burmese are deeply traditionalist, he pointed out, and the disaster could be taken to mean the current rulers had lost the “mandate of heaven”.
In Rangoon, where monks and civilians were clearing the streets of debris, a man who refused to be identified added: “Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians? They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity.”
How you can donate:
A number of charities have launched appeals to help the Burmese in the wake of this weekend’s cyclone. You can donate online to the British Red Cross, www.redcross.org.uk (£5 will provide water purification tablets for 60 people), to Oxfam’s emergency fund, www.oxfam.co.uk, to Christian Aid, www.christianaid.org.uk, and Save the Children, www.savethechildren.org.uk.
Burma cyclone death toll could hit 63,000
Aid agencies are scrambling to mount a massive relief effort after military rulers in Burma, also known as Myanmar, said 22,464 people had been killed and a further 41,000 were missing feared dead after the weekend cyclone.
Foreign minister Nyan Win revealed that more than 10,000 people had been killed in a single town, Bogalay, as he gave the first detailed account of the scale of the disaster.
With the number of dead or missing growing by the hour a huge humanitarian crisis is looming with hundreds of thousands left homeless and without drinking water since Cyclone Nargis crashed into the coast on Saturday at 120mph, destroying entire villages and battering Rangoon.
As United Nations agencies warned of a disaster in the south-east Asian country, the normally isolationist dictatorship issued a rare appeal for international assistance.
The foreign minister asked Western diplomats for tents, medicine and water purification equipment.
“We will welcome help … from other countries, because our people are in difficulty,” he said.
A first shipment of aid is expected to leave neighbouring Thailand later today.
US President George W. Bush urged Burma’s military rulers to allow in international help, saying he was prepared to send navy ships to help the recovery.
“We want to do a lot more,” he said. “Our message is to the military rulers: let the United States come to help you, help the people.”
The White House later announced it was offering an additional three million dollars in aid, building on its initial offer of 250,000 dollars.
A Pentagon spokesman said the USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship with 1,800 marines aboard, and three other naval vessels were off the coast of Thailand and could be redirected to Burma if asked to do so.
But the junta insisted foreign aid teams would have to negotiate before being allowed to operate here, and many agencies said they were still waiting for visas to allow their staff into the country.
Social welfare minister Maung Maung Swe told reporters that most of the town of Bogalay, one of the delta areas that bore the brunt of the storm’s force, had simply been washed away.
“Ninety-five percent of the houses in Bogalay were destroyed,” he said. “Many people were killed in a 12-foot tidal wave.”
Satellite images from US space agency NASA showed virtually the entire coastal plain of the country, one of the poorest nations on the planet, under water.
The government also said it would proceed this weekend with a constitutional referendum as part of its slow-moving “road map” to democracy, except in the areas hardest hit by the disaster.
The head of the Asian Development Bank expressed his condolences to Burma over the country’s devastating cyclone, and said the institution would decide how best to respond.
“I would like to take a moment to offer, on behalf of all of us at ADB, our heartfelt condolences to the people of Myanmar who are struggling through the aftermath of Sunday’s cyclone with huge losses of life and property,” ADB President Haruhiko Kuroda said.
“We will work closely with shareholders and development partners to decide how best to respond,” he told a news conference at the end of a four-day annual ADB meeting in Madrid.
America’s First Lady Laura Bush called a press conference on Monday night to promise aid to Burma – the first reaction from the White House since the scale of the crisis became clear.
But she accused the junta of failing to warn its citizens via the state-run media of the danger they faced from the storm.
Mrs Bush also said it would be “odd” if the country went ahead with Saturday’s planned referendum.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said the organisation “will do whatever (necessary) to provide urgent humanitarian assistance,” and stressed that a disaster management team was ready to leave for Burma.
Mr Ban’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar met with Burma’s UN Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe. The talks focused on prospects for urgent grant allocations from the UN’s $500 million Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), as well as communications and coordination support to assist aid delivery.
Gordon Brown pledged that Britain would do everything it could to ease the suffering in the disaster-hit state.
Speaking to an audience of business leaders in central London, the Prime Minister said: “I believe nearly a million people are now need in need of food aid and we will have to help the families of those where people have died.
“I want to pledge on behalf of the British Government that we will work with the whole international community to make sure that food aid is available to the people of Burma.”
But there were doubts about exactly how open the Burmese regime really is to foreign assistance. Diplomats asked ministers whether visas would be available to relief workers and whether duty would be waived on relief supplies. The ministers could give no such commitment.
The cyclone, which flattened thousands of buildings, ripped power lines, uprooted trees on key roads and disrupted water supplies, came days ahead of Saturday’s controversial referendum on a constitution which critics say will entrench military rule.
The junta has insisted that it would press ahead with the vote, but many in Rangoon said that they had other priorities.
The former capital, with a population of five million, took a direct hit. “We have no electricity, we have no water,” said one man.
Aid workers were meanwhile facing a desperate battle to help hundreds of thousands of Burmese.
Western diplomats told The Daily Telegraph that the government had failed to make it possible for United Nations agencies to move swiftly to bring relief to thousands left without drinking water and shelter.
A UN source said that the organisation can deliver the first supplies within 24 hours of an official request, which would open Burma’s tight borders to aid shipments. But he added that no such request had been received.
A Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said of the generals who rule the country: “They are incompetent. They don’t care.
“You’d have thought, with a military government, they would get cracking and sort it out, but somehow I don’t think it is going to be like that.”
An international aid worker based in Burma said: “Normally it takes two weeks to get permission to go into the field. At this point, they are not deviating from that procedure.”
Tropical cyclones are immensely powerful low-pressure weather systems capable of generating ten times as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Nargis devastated a vast swathe of the country after hitting the coast, flattening thousands of buildings, ripping power lines, uprooting trees on key roads and disrupting drinking water supplies.
Burmese state television said five regions with a combined population of 24 million people had been declared disaster zones.
Survivors in the worst-hit region, the densely populated Irrawaddy Delta, face a growing risk of disease and possibly hunger.
In Rangoon, the former capital and a city of five million people, the situation is dire after it took a direct hit from the storm.
The price of fuel has doubled since the cyclone struck, while many homes have been severely damaged and the water supply has collapsed.
Women came out on to the streets to wash clothes in the gutters when it rained last night. Broken trees and electricity poles littered the roads of the city.
There is also a danger that the price of food and other essentials could rapidly rise, adding to public discontent.
With the economy crippled by decades of misrule, and most people already struggling to meet their basic needs, many were quick to criticise the junta’s faltering response.
“We are really suffering, but the government don’t care, they are happy enough,” said one man.
Analysts believe that if the referendum goes ahead, there could be a significant “no” vote and blatant vote-rigging by the generals.
Circumstances exist for a political crisis to develop in what is already a dire humanitarian emergency. One diplomat said yesterday: “What on earth is going to happen to this poor country next?”
The devastation represents Asia’s worst natural disaster since the earthquake that killed more than 70,000 in Pakistan in 2005. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 killed more than 200,000 in Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean.
While the Red Cross has managed to distribute water purification tablets and mosquito nets, Save the Children estimated yesterday that more than 50,000 are without shelter in three towns in the Rangoon region alone. It said that people are camping out in schools, monasteries, churches and mosques.
Win Myint, 38, a resident of Rangoon, told how he had fled his home moments before a tree ploughed into his home.
He scooped up his two-month-old daughter and ran through driving rain and winds into the face of the storm to seek shelter at a Buddhist temple in the satellite city of Dagon.
“We had to run for our lives during the storm at 3 am on Saturday,” he said. “We were frightened. We have nothing now. I don’t even have milk powder for my daughter.
“She is sick now. I have no idea what we should do. We got some rice, salt and oil from the authorities. But of course it’s not enough.”
The cyclone toll in Asia
Nov 12, 1970, Bangladesh: The country’s deadliest cyclone destroys Chittagong and dozens of coastal villages, killing around 500,000 people.
Nov 19, 1977, India: More than 10,000 people die when cyclone hits south-east Andhra coast. It disrupts life for 5.4 million people and damages 3.5 million acres of arable land.
May 24, 1985, Bangladesh: 11,000 people die in cyclone that hit Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar and coastal islands.
April 29, 1991, Bangladesh: 143,000 people died after cyclone hits coast with 15ft tidal surge.
Oct 29, 1999, India: A “super-cyclone” hits the northeast state of Orissa, killing almost 10,000.
Nov 15, 2007, Bangladesh: Cyclone Sidr kills around 3,500.
May 3, 2008, Burma: Up to 10,000 feared dead and 3,000 more missing after cyclone hits Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon.