The international Caritas relief effort is now targeting more than 60,000 people through local partners with food, temporary shelter, health care and other aid items in four of the most seriously affected areas of Myanmar despite ongoing difficulties with access for international aid teams.
Cyclone Nargis made landfall on May 2, killing 80,000 people with tens of thousands still unaccounted for and 2.5 million affected.
‘We are reaching 60,000 people in the worst affected areas of Pathein and Yangon which were badly hit by the storm,’ said Mr J P Nelson, coordinator of the Caritas Internationalis Emergency Response Support Team for Myanmar.
Caritas aid is being distributed through small teams on the ground who are sourcing food and other supplies locally. More than 300 volunteers have been trained on assessment, logistics, emergency response and accountability.
‘It continues to be extremely difficult to operate in the affected areas. The extensive networks we are able to draw on through religious and other organisations within Myanmar give us access to many of the people who have received little help so far,’ said Mr Nelson.
‘The amount of aid we are getting through remains significant but is far outweighed by the enormous need that exists particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta region,’ he said.
‘We are still unable to conduct mass distributions and this is raising the growing threat of malnutrition and spreading of disease.
‘We are very glad to see the Government of Myanmar is allowing more Asian disaster relief experts in. Fortunately with the wide network of Catholic medical and community organisations throughout Asia and our strong record of working through recent disasters such as Cyclone Sidr (November, 2007) and the 2004 tsunami, we are hopeful that we can draw on this expertise to help the many millions of people in Myanmar who need it.’
Long-term response required
Meanwhile, officials say the cyclone’s impact will be felt for many years to come. The UN Food and Agricultural Office estimates that 65 percent of Myanmar’s rice, 80 percent of its aquaculture, 50 percent of its poultry and 40 percent of its pig production was located in the Irrawaddy Delta and other affected areas where the cyclone struck.
The cyclone swept two-metre high waves across much of the most arable land in the delta.
According to an aid worker who wanted to remain anonymous, the ground in Yangon would dry up in a few weeks or months, ‘but in the delta, some areas, may remain submerged forever. Much of the most arable land in the delta has been inundated with salty brackish water.’
The prospects for food security in Myanmar remain dire through this year and even into the next three to five years.
Similarly the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is likely to increase from the around 200,000 within Myanmar before the cyclone. Current estimates suggest as many as two million people have lost their homes.
Around one million people from Myanmar are estimated to be living illegally in Thailand which is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees.
Without homes or food supplies, these people are unlikely to return but their failure to do so will have a massive impact both within Myanmar and among its neighbours where many refugees have already sought solace.
Church plea for homeless
The Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, said the issue of food security and IDPs will be ongoing for Myanmar and help is needed to ensure the people are not forgotten.
‘Thousands of homeless and starving people knock at our door. Help us to help those people. Their rehabilitation is a long journey.’
The Catholic Church has been in the forefront of aid delivery. The network has reached some of the remotest villages with the first delivery of aid, the aid worker said.
Immediately after the cyclone hit, there were ‘no telephone lines and no electricity for a number of days.
‘I had a short wave radio and was exchanging information with different international organisations in Yangon. It was clear from the first that the impact of the cyclone had been devastating.’
‘We knew that we had to do something,’ said the church worker. ‘We had no experience and we were completely cut off from the outside world.
‘We quickly organised 15 people into teams to assess the worst affected areas. We sent them off with money to support those they came across that needed help with rice, clean water, shelter—whatever they could afford that would bring some relief. We also gave them forms so they could clearly indicate areas of greatest need.’
The assessment teams went to Bogalay, Laputta and some even into the delta by boat—an area that is always difficult to access, but further complicated by the effects of the cyclone.
‘We expected that 100,000 to 150,000 were killed by the cyclone from the first day. ‘The assessment teams came back extremely affected by what they had seen. Fewer than half of those that went out initially volunteered to go back to continue the work.’
Children, women, men, the elderly, the young—the cyclone was not discriminating in who it targeted.
A key challenge in the response, once immediate needs of food, clean water, shelter and medical attention are met, will be to provide adequate trauma counselling.
Those that need psychological and spiritual support are both the people who suffered through the cyclone and survived the difficult time following and also those involved in the emergency response efforts, particularly in the assessment phase.
‘Most of the aid to this point has been distributed by private cars and through small boats,’ says the worker.
‘I am very proud that we, as a church, have been able to be there in the greatest hour of need of the people of Myanmar. We have made a great difference to the lives of tens of thousands of people in the days following the cyclone,’ says the worker. ‘We have done all we could and more.’
To donate to Caritas’ relief effort by credit card, www.caritas.org.nz or phone 0800 22 10 22 or post a cheque to: Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, PO Box 12-193, Thorndon, Wellington 6144, New Zealand.
For more information contact Martin de Jong, Communications and International advocacy coordinator, 64-4-496 1742 or 64-21-909 688.