Relief trickles into Myanmar

A family shelters itself Wednesday under a makeshift tent next to their home, which was destroyed by Saturday’s cyclone in Myanmar.

AFP/Getty Images

A family shelters itself Wednesday under a makeshift tent next to their home, which was destroyed by Saturday’s cyclone in Myanmar.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Small quantities of drinking water, food, tents and other vital supplies reached Myanmar's devastated Irrawaddy delta region Wednesday, as bodies floated uncollected in swollen rivers and sea-flooded rice paddies five days after a cyclone roared through.

Survivors, speaking in video interviews, gave harrowing accounts of clinging to palm tree trunks to escape swirling floodwaters, then escaping to high ground in rickety boats. A U.S. diplomat said that the death toll, now tentatively at 22,000, could reach 100,000.

The secondary toll could run that number even higher.

Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's agriculture heartland, known as its rice bowl, experts said Wednesday, and could result in long-term food shortages for the impoverished country.

In Yangon, hungry people swarmed the few open shops and fistfights broke out over food and water in the swamped delta Wednesday.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that five states hit hardest by Saturday's storm produce 65 percent of the country's rice. The region is also home to 80 percent of its aquaculture, 50 percent of its poultry and 40 percent of its pig production, the FAO said.

Of most concern is the rice production. Since the impoverished country has produced enough to feed itself until now, it has been able to avert potentially dangerous shortages as well as increases in rice prices, which have tripled recently on the global market.

"There is likely going to be incredible shortages in the next 18 to 24 months," said Sean Turnell, an economist specializing in Myanmar (pronounced MEE-ahn-mahr) at Australia's Macquarie University. "Things will be tough."

The FAO said the storm may even affect future harvests because it likely destroyed seeds kept in inadequate facilities and sent saltwater far into fields.

International aid agencies expressed new frustration that a huge operation to help the estimated 1-million survivors is being held up by military rulers' reluctance to let foreign relief experts into the country.

Shortly after the disaster, the Myanmar military authorities said they would welcome international help. Analysts are split over whether their continuing delays are caused by the generals' trouble in overcoming their traditional xenophobia, particularly towards Westerners, or by simple bureaucracy.

"You only have three people in the whole country who can make decisions, one of whom is the astrologer of the senior general," said a foreign aid worker.

The Myanmar government has said the cyclone killed at least 22,000 people, with another 40,000 missing. Shari Villarosa, head of the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, told reporters Wednesday that she was hearing indications that the death toll may rise to 100,000.

Despite the continuing uncertainty, the World Food Program has sent four aircraft containing 45 metric tons of high-energy biscuits and other supplies. Staff members of WFP, which has long operated nonemergency programs in Myanmar, worked with private relief personnel to distribute some 90 tons of rice to destitute civilians on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.

City residents are facing the prospect of weeks without electricity, a worsening shortage of drinking water and spiraling food prices, as authorities slowly begin the enormous task of cleaning up and repairing the city's shattered infrastructure.

City workers have begun the daunting job of restoring the electrical system, which was destroyed by the cyclone, with virtually all power poles uprooted.

Without electricity, water pumps can't run, leaving households to scramble for clean drinking water.

Water trucks are selling to poorer families, but at high prices. Food prices have also risen quickly in local markets, putting a huge burden on poor families.

The cyclone struck just as the region's paddy farmers were harvesting the dry season crop, which accounts for about 25 percent of the country's annual production.

"I think the overall projection is of incredible hardship," said Turnell, the Myanmar expert.

Information from the Associated Press and Washington Post was used in this report.

Relief trickles into Myanmar 05/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:39pm]

    

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