The humanitarian crisis of Myanmar's survivors | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 17, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 17, 2008

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The humanitarian crisis of Myanmar's survivors

Natural disasters are something that the people of Bangladesh are familiar with. Floods and cyclones, death and devastation, associated with such occurrences, have become part of our lives. Over the last fifty years, in addition to many tornadoes, we have had massive cyclones that have at times killed more than one hundred thousand unfortunate people at a time and tens of thousands of livestock. I recall in this context, the cyclones of the sixties and the monster at the end of 1970. An entire generation of people living near the coast was seriously affected. After this was the disaster in the first quarter of 1991 and finally Sidr that hit our south western districts late last year.
There have also been periodical floods where tens of millions of people have had to undergo the misery of inundation. In fact, during some years, as in 2007, we have had not one, but two floods.
These disasters have wiped out crops and decimated infrastructure. They have also retarded socio-economic growth and development and halted the reduction of poverty. Such calamities also led to internal migration from rural areas to urban centres, thereby taxing further the existing weak infrastructure in the cities. Health centres and educational institutions have also suffered and we have had to begin all over again. For successive governments tackling natural disasters have been daunting tasks.
Nevertheless, over time, the resilient people of Bangladesh and the relevant authorities in charge of disaster management have learnt how to prepare themselves not only for effective tackling of natural disasters through pre-emptive measures but also in the carrying out of post-disaster relief and rehabilitation programmes. Our expertise in this regard was best exemplified during last year's cyclone Sidr. Careful planning and urgent steps enabled us to save tens of thousands of lives (including hundred of fishermen), prevent the spread of post-disaster diseases and also to provide necessary relief. As a result the people living in the cyclone-hit areas were able to receive on time basic food, shelter, clean drinking water and medicine. Many did not die unnecessarily due to lack of care.
The classical case was the manner in which the then Awami League government dealt with the terrible prolonged floods of 1998. Nearly 40 million people were directly affected. Most of them lost their food reserves, many their thatched huts and their livestock. Foreign analysts predicted that at least fifty thousand would die. That did not happen. Good management at the ground level by the then administrative structure helped the government to overcome the disaster. Contrary to predictions less than thirty perished -- mostly from drowning and snakebites. It was an example of good governance and coordination at work. The contribution of the government was recognized fittingly by the UN agency FAO and the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was awarded the important Ceres medal.
Last year after cyclone Sidr, as had happened during 1991, our government received cooperation and technical aid from the international community. This helped us to tackle the emergency and the short terms aspects of the emergency successfully. The assistance received by our armed forces (in charge of coordinating relief) from the contingent of the US armed forces dispatched to Bangladesh for this purpose, was most useful and timely. The availability of US air transport permitted the joint operation to deliver urgently required food, tents, drinking water, water purification tablets and medicines to villages as well as isolated shoals. This was vital given the total breakdown of communication infrastructure and our inherent resource constraint. The private sector and the NGOs also stepped in to carry out their own relief operations based on donations. The whole nation worked as one and we could overcome the crisis.
I am writing today about natural disasters because of what happened on 3 May in the southwestern Irrawaddy delta of Myanmar. Cyclone Nargis decided not to tread the cataclysmic path of Sidr and instead slammed into Myanmar. The enormity of the tragedy is slowly unraveling itself. The state owned TV in Yangon has officially reported that the death toll has risen to nearly 31,000 with another 33,000 missing. Relevant UN agencies have however suggested that the death toll is over 1,00,000 with about 220,000 missing. Their statistics are based on informal assessments carried out in 55 townships in the ravaged delta. The UN is also claiming that almost 1.21 million people have been directly affected by the cyclone and that the survivors face a massive crisis unless they are urgently delivered aid. It has also been reported that more than two weeks after cyclone Nargis struck, only about one-third of survivors have received any aid so far. The military government is being blamed for this.
Sarah Ireland, UK-based Oxfam's East Asia director has also claimed that the disaster was a "perfect storm" which bore "all the factors" for a "public health catastrophe." The UN, which has launched a $187m appeal for aid, has stated that the worst-affected areas are receiving deliveries of aid only sporadically, with correspondents saying some aid is reaching survivors, but not nearly enough. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have also commented that thousands of people are homeless and living in pitiable conditions. Hospitals, schools, monasteries and other large buildings are also crammed with the displaced.
The aid agencies have also warned that the Myanmarese government does not have the capacity to handle the scale of the relief efforts needed. Richard Horsey, a spokesman for UN humanitarian operations, has quite understandably added that an international presence was needed in Myanmar to look at the logistics of getting boats, helicopters and trucks into the worst affected delta area. There is apparently a critical bottleneck that must be overcome (due to breakdown in road communications).
Unfortunately, unlike Bangladesh, our neighbour has been handling the evolving post-disaster crisis poorly. Paranoid about possible external influence and desirous of clinging on to power at any cost, the ruling junta has been slow in giving visas and allowing foreign experts to travel to the disaster area and managing relief operations. We have also seen how wrong priorities have been accorded and focus given more on holding a stage-managed referendum on controversial constitutional principles rather than activating grassroots relief operations and the burial of the dead. The insensitive Myanmar Administration has also been insisting that others can give aid but only official Myanmar personnel will distribute it without any scope for accountability. Despite the small window of opportunity for providing meaningful relief, such an attitude can only be interpreted as a desperate attempt by that government to turn the relief effort into a charm offensive for the unpopular regime.
It is difficult for us in Bangladesh to understand this form of governance. Myanmar should have taken a leaf out of our book of experience and acted accordingly. It is also disappointing that some of the other neighbours of Myanmar belonging to ASEAN could not influence Myanmar to take a more pro-active and positive attitude immediately after the disaster.
Nevertheless, it is fortunate that there has been a delayed realisation within Myanmar policymakers that US aid should be allowed entry into the affected area. It has nothing to do with politics. It is all about saving precious lives and bridging mental borders. USA has the necessary structure and capacity available in the region and can provide the required logistical support. This will reduce the prospect of a humanitarian crisis and needs to be availed of. That is all.
In this context, it would be pertinent to thank our Administration for responding quickly to the humanitarian disaster in the Irrawaddy delta. The scope and nature of our assistance could be further expanded by including the dispatch of 5,000 tons of potato by sea from Chittagong. That would provide immediate succour to the starving population. We could also send half a million sachets of oral rice saline powder for those suffering from diarrhea. Two other items could be collected and sent -- mosquito nets and lungis (worn by both men and women in Myanmar).
We must all work together within the BIMSTEC family to ensure that the natural disaster does not turn into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions. Myanmar faces a daunting task ahead. Many of its roads and bridges have been washed away, and if heavy rain continues in the coming days, it will further complicate relief efforts in the delta of despair.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador who can be reached at mzamir@dhaka.net

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