There has been a lot of “Myanmar is refusing aid” reporting which, I think, has been a distraction that has obscured the heroic efforts and contributions on the ground from local disaster relief personnel and in-country NGOs.
Now that Myanmar has agreed to permit entry to “all aid workers”, hopefully the full story of disaster relief in the wake of Cyclone Nargis will be told.
Here’s some reports that give an idea of what’s been going on. I’m quoting at length to give an idea of the nature and extent of relief operations. All the NGOs mentioned would welcome cash contributions.
First off, since I know you haven’t read it anywhere else, here’s what the Myanmar government says it’s been doing:
Minister U Soe Tha also briefed on rescue and rehabilitation tasks and distribution of relief foods, drinking water and relief aids to storm-hit areas in the delta region by helicopter and three phases of the relief work. Altogether 419 relief camps have been set up. Over 59.63% of power consumption rate of Yangon is now being supplied to Yangon and 76.28% of communication lines…are now in good condition. Water supply to Yangon…has reached 98.5% [New Light of Myanmar, May 23, 2008]
Next [the generals] went to U Cho rice mill where rice miller U Myo Wai and Daw Aeye Aye Lwin reported on milling of 30,000 bags of rice and delivery of bags of rice to Labutta, Myaungmya, Mawlamyainggyun, Hainggyi Island, Pyinkhayaing, Thingangon, Thetkal Thoung and Wakema. Chairman of Ayeyawady Division [that’s Irrawaddy Division, the hardest-hit region—ed] Rice Millers Association reported on regular running of rice mills in Hinthada, Maubin, Myaungmya Districts and sale of rice toAyeyawady Division and regions in other divisions.
Altogether 32 rice mills are in operation in Pathein and the bags of rice are transported to the relief camps.[New Light of Myanmar, May 22, 2008]
The Senior General bossman Than Shwe commiserated with the survivors and also discussed the importance of reconstruction: building embankments and raised roads against the next storm surge (a.k.a. levees) and gearing up to get the next rice planting into the ground.
For those of you who like to drill down into data on disaster relief performance, the May 22 file of New Light of Myanmar has a listing of 23 districts, many classified as “rear, middle, or forward camps”, presumably on the basis of how hard they were hit, with a list of the tonnages of “foodstuff, consumer products, and construction” relief each district has received.
There’s also a league table showing domestic and international aid contributions through May 20. As of May 20, the score was Locals 5423 tons, Visitors 1209 tons.
I don’t want to spritz more gasoline on the “how inadequate is the response of the Burmese junta” debate other than to say that these reports fit in with my picture of socialist disaster relief: militarized, centralized, and acting on the assumption that manpower and materials are scarce and probably inadequate, with a priority on securing vital resources and getting the population into controllable environments so that relief can be dispensed efficiently and in a way that the government’s objectives for political stability and economic reconstruction are effectively served.
In my mind, this is a different, certainly more callous, and perhaps more realistic approach to a disaster of this scale than the “leave no victim behind” enthusiasm that has gripped the West, which seems to hold—and wishes the world to act on—the assumption that adequate aid for everybody can materialize everywhere with a snap of the fingers and the arrival of a fleet of helicopters.
OK, that was a jerrycan of gasoline, not just a squirt. But there’s probably an interesting book on the subject of totalitarian vs. capitalist disaster relief that could be spun out of the Nargis catastrophe.
Turning to the efforts of the in-country NGOs and the tremendous efforts of their local staff, first is a comment in Guardian from Markku Niskala , secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:
Today, as they have for the past 20 days, thousands of Burma Red Cross volunteers will be working their way out to the worst affected parts of the delta, doing all that they can with the little they have to help shattered communities. These volunteers, who have had the access that international staff and organisations have not, will continue to hand out basic relief items, provide simple first aid, and carry out assessments to help guide our response.
“There are many villages in Bogale which we are still trying to reach,” one Red Cross volunteer told us when he returned to Rangoon at the beginning of this week. “I was able to reach about 20 villages by boat. In one village we visited, there were over 15,000 people before the cyclone, but now only about 2,600 are left.”
More assistance is reaching the country and this week Red Cross and Red Crescent aid – much of it emergency shelter material – will increase dramatically. More than 30 flights have arrived in Rangoon carrying in excess of 540 tonnes of essential relief goods. Another 200 tonnes have been cleared for this week and more flights are being confirmed daily.
But it remains a race against the clock and the logistical challenges grow with the rain. What reaches the cyclone-devastated areas can’t get there fast enough, and what does get through is not enough. A huge amount must follow.
Second is a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humantarian Affairs:
BANGKOK, 21 May 2008 (IRIN) – Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has developed an extensive health-care programme in Myanmar over the past decade, with more than 1,000, mainly local, employees working on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. So when Cyclone Nargis struck, MSF was well placed to deploy medical personnel into the Ayeyarwady Delta, despite the restrictions on foreign aid workers.
MSF deployed about 200 people – divided into 40 relief teams, each with a doctor, nurse and paramedic – to deliver emergency food and other supplies and to treat some of the 20,000 people that Myanmar authorities estimate were injured in the cyclone.
“There is a great enthusiasm among the staff,” Frank Smithius, country director of MSF Holland, said. “But to increase the response, it would be good to bring in extra people.”
Long-term NGO presence
Like MSF, many large international NGOs, including Save the Children, Care, World Vision and Merlin, were running projects on health, nutrition, education and poverty alleviation long before the cyclone struck.
Since the disaster, hundreds of local employees of these organisations, along with volunteers from the Myanmar Red Cross, have been on the frontlines of the emergency relief effort. Local aid workers have struggled to deliver food, water, shelter, medical care and other support to the estimated 2.4 million survivors of the cyclone.
But international organisations are chafing at the restrictions that with only a few exceptions continue to prevent nearly all foreign technical specialists – including veterans of other natural disasters – from entering the delta area.
“We don’t need an invasion of foreigners – we have doctors to treat the wounds in general – but most people [in Myanmar] have not dealt with this kind of emergency before,” said Smithius, adding that MSF had specialists in Yangon, the largest city and former capital, who could deal with this kind of crisis.
After more than a week of waiting, MSF has finally received official permission for eight of its foreign specialists, including water and sanitation specialists and a medical coordinator, to begin working directly in the Ayeyarwady Delta area.
But most other organisations say their foreign experts are still confined to Yangon. Agencies say the lack of specialists on the ground is adding to the strain on Burmese aid workers.
“It’s very hard for our staff, who are reacting to something on this scale for the first time,” said Katie Barrett, a Save the Children child protection specialist, in Yangon. “There is no capacity for me to . help put their work in perspective, to keep giving pep talks and to top up training.”
Training local staff
However, aid agencies are doing their best to surmount these obstacles by using their specialists to train local colleagues before they go out to the disaster areas.
After the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies found out that their foreign specialists would not be able to leave Yangon to operate emergency water purification systems at the disaster sites, they began training local engineers to do it.
The IFRC is also training local staff to run 10 distribution hubs in the delta. Jack Sparrow, a spokesman for the IFRC, said: “We’re having to do things that we haven’t done before. You just have to be as creative as you can – and flexible.”
For organisations such as Oxfam GB, which had no prior presence in Myanmar, the frustration is being completely shut out of the relief effort. “We are not officially working there, so we are looking at other ways to support the relief effort,” said Sarah Ireland, Asia regional director of Oxfam GB. “We are funding international NGOs and local partners to do basic relief operations at this stage.”
Andrew Kirkwood, country director of Save the Children, which has people on the ground in Myanmar, hoped other humanitarian organisations would eventually be able to join the effort. “The scale of this has overwhelmed everybody, and all the existing agencies’ abilities to respond,” he said. “We’d like the government to let in other agencies to help.”
From the MSF website:
Frank Smithuis, MSF Head of Mision, Yangon, Myanmar: “I am deeply impressed by how the Burmese people have come together to help each other. We went by boat to a place to distribute 1,000 bags of rice, each weighing 50kg. When we arrived, there were no trucks, only 12 young men with motorbikes who agreed to help us transport the rice.
“We agreed to pay them $5 each for delivering the rice. But once we had finished distributing everything, they refused to let us pay them for their work, despite the fact that those men have also lost their homes.
“Our staff are unpaid for their work with people in the disaster area. There are many private initiatives of richer Burmese who buy food and stuff and deliver it to those who need aid. That is still ongoing.”
Ayeyarwady Delta area MSF now has more than 250 staff on the ground in the Ayeyarwady Delta, with a total of 33 medical teams. MSF teams have reached around 120,000 people so far.
The main challenges facing people are access to suitable shelter, food and water. MSF teams in the Delta have distributed at least 310 metric tons of rice, over 84 000 cans of fish, 16 500 litres of cooking oil and 13 500 plastic sheets.
MSF teams are distributing supplies as they travel to the villages affected by the cyclone. Once a suitable distribution point is found, MSF staff give the aid materials directly to the villagers. The village chief and a monk are often present to oversee the distribution.
In the first weeks, MSF teams has been reaching many villages with first aid supplies and distributing available supplies. The government keeps records of the population so MSF teams were able to obtain accurate figures of people identified as living in the villages. However, the population lists are only accurate where people are still in their home villages, and not where displaced people have congregated in schools and monasteries.
The next step is to revisit the villages distributing accurate family rations of supplies. MSF teams are conducting head counts amongst the displaced population to assess the level of need. The teams are distributing according to the needs of the population, with supplies of plastic sheeting, food, mosquito nets and water containers. Teams are concentrating on provision of clean water where there is no existing source. This is often through the distribution of washbasins, water containers and plastic sheeting to collect rainwater.
People are also asking for more shelter materials, salt and clothes. In the south of the Delta region, the entire population has been affected so it has been necessary to distribute large quantities of supplies. In the larger towns that suffered less damage, most of the relief effort is concentrated on the camps of displaced people. Most people who have lost their homes have now congregated in schools and monasteries. Medical help On average our teams are seeing around 500 patients each day. Many of the consultations are still injuries as a result of the storm, such as bone fractures, head wounds and infected wounds.
From the Save the Children website:
Westport, Conn. (May 19, 2008) — Save the Children’s relief efforts continue in cyclone-stricken Myanmar, with thousands of children and families receiving lifesaving assistance as the agency redoubles its work in townships surrounding Yangon and in the Irrawaddy Delta.
To date, Save the Children has reached 160,632 people including more than 50,000 children with food, water, shelter materials, household supplies and oral-rehydration salts to treat diarrhea. Survivors receiving assistance include nearly 90,000 in the Yangon area, more than 56,000 in the western Delta and more than 15,000 in the country’s eastern Delta region. The agency, which has been working in Myanmar for 13 years, has programs in the five most devastated districts.
Save the Children is one of the largest nongovernmental organizations at work in Myanmar. The agency implements programs focused on early childhood care and development, child survival and child protection. All of its 500 staff members are safe and accounted for, although their homes and families have been affected.
CARE has seven emergency specialists ready to deploy to Myanmar in the field of logistics, operations management, water and sanitation, emergency coordination and monitoring and evaluation, to assist with CARE’s ongoing response. CARE already has more than 550 staff in the country, and has provided assistance to nearly 100,000 cyclone survivors. CARE has been working in Myanmar for 14 years, and was able to respond immediately to the disaster.
World Vision has been able to increase its humanitarian response on the ground in Myanmar by sending additional aid workers and supplies into the country. This expansion of the organisation’s relief efforts is encouraging, but there is still more work to be done.
Five foreign staff with expertise in distribution, logistics, water and sanitation and human resources arrived in Myanmar Tuesday morning. In addition to technical expertise, the aid agency is sending in relief flights loaded with more supplies, including 2.3 million water purification tablets, 5,000 tarps, 5,000 kitchen sets, 5,000 hygiene kits, 2,000 mosquito nets, and two water purification systems that can purify up to 4,000 gallons of water per hour. Two flights have already landed from Singapore, and one flight is scheduled from Frankfurt via Bangkok. An additional flight from Singapore is being scheduled for next week.
“We are seeing positive indications that the channels of relief into Myanmar are opening up,” said Steve Goudswaard, Cyclone Nargis disaster relief and response manager for World Vision. “We are hopeful that in the coming days, we will be able to begin expanding our humanitarian aid operation to reach even more survivors with food, water, and medical care. There is an urgent need on the ground and every day is critical.”
While the additional staff workers and relief aid are welcome, there is still much more work to be done. World Vision estimates it could help close to 500,000 people for the next six months if it is allowed to have greater access to the hardest-hit areas in the delta region and to bring in additional essential materials to distribute the aid as quickly and efficiently as possible. Overall access to the delta remains limited, and it is hampering operations to those who need it the most.
In Myanmar, World Vision’s 580 in-country staff have assisted 135,000 people with 188 metric tons of rice, 40,000 litres of clean water and medicines and survival items. In addition, 37 Child-Friendly Spaces have opened up in Yangon to give child survivors a safe place to play and recover from losses and traumatic experiences. World Vision has also sent teams of child protection specialists to establish up to 25 Child-Friendly Spaces in the Ayeyarwaddy Region.
20 May 2008
Pandaw IV, the 180ft river cruiser kindly donated to Merlin by Pandaw River Cruises, has arrived in the Irrawaddy Delta and from tomorrow, will start running mobile clinics and distributing vital supplies. The boat, crewed by 27 staff from Myanmar, has enough basic health care supplies to treat 20,000 people for three months. Stocks also include tarpaulin sheets, which can be used to shelter families from the monsoon rains, food, medical equipment, water purification systems and water storage containers. These life-saving supplies will initially be distributed among five isolated coastal villages along the Pyay Ma Lork river.
Running outreach clinics from the boat, the medical team will take their supplies and expertise directly to the most-affected villages. This way, they’ll be able to effectively gauge the true extent of the public health needs on the ground; checking for signs of malnutrition in children and disease outbreaks, as well as assessing just how much food, water and shelter is needed.
Another boat will be used to relay this information back to Merlin’s office in Laputta, from where all supplies will then be ordered and dispatched