Monday, May 12, 2008

Myanmar food aid lost when boat sinks

Monday, May 12, 2008 3:07 AM

A statue of Buddha reflects Cyclone Nargis' damage to a temple on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. State television said yesterday the death toll had risen by about 5,000, to 28,458, and 33,416 others are missing.

YANGON, Myanmar -- Myanmar's monumental task of feeding and sheltering 1.5 million cyclone survivors suffered another blow yesterday when a boat laden with relief supplies -- one of the first international shipments -- sank on its way to the disaster zone.

Meanwhile, the death toll jumped to more than 28,000, and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned that "malign neglect" by the isolated nation's military rulers was creating a "humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions."

The junta has been sharply criticized for its handling of the May 3 disaster, from failing to provide adequate warnings about the pending storm to responding slowly to offers of help.

Although international assistance has started trickling in, the few foreign relief workers who have been allowed into Myanmar have been restricted to the largest city, Yangon. Only a handful have succeeded in getting past checkpoints into the worst-affected areas.

The United States finally got the go-ahead to send a C-130 cargo plane packed with supplies to Yangon today, with two more air shipments scheduled to land Tuesday.

Myanmar's military rulers are deeply suspicious of Washington, which has long been one of the junta's biggest critics. The U.S. has pointed to human-rights abuses and the junta's failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

Highlighting the many challenges ahead, however, a Red Cross boat carrying rice, drinking water and other goods for more than 1,000 people sank yesterday near hard-hit Bogalay town. All four aid workers on board were safe.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies could not say how much of the cargo was lost, but it said the food was contaminated by river water.

"Apart from the delay in getting aid to people, we may now have to re-evaluate how we transport that aid," said Michael Annear, the agency's disaster manager in Yangon.

Other aid was increasingly getting through, the group said, but on "nowhere near the scale required."

Heavy showers were forecast for this week, complicating delivery of aid that is still barely reaching victims in the Irrawaddy Delta, which was pounded by 120-mph winds and 12-foot- storm surges.

In hard-hit Labutta, hundreds of survivors crowded the floor of a monastery's open-air hall amid the wails of hungry children. Many people tried to sleep sitting up because of lack of space.

Pain Na Kon, a tiny nearby village of just 300, was obliterated. The only 12 known survivors huddled in a tent set up in a rice field, sharing a small portion of biscuits and watery soup handed out at a local monastery.

"We don't know when they will also run out of food," said U Nyo, casting glances at his 6-year-old niece, Mien Mien, who lost both her parents in the cyclone and sat outside in the dark. U Nyo called out to her gently, but Mien Mien stared into the darkness. Overcome with emotion, U Nyo walked, teary-eyed, over to the girl and sat beside her in silence.

Myanmar's state television said yesterday the death toll from Cyclone Nargis had risen by about 5,000, to 28,458 -- with another 33,416 missing. Some experts said the toll could reach 15 times that figure if people do not get clean water and sanitation soon.

"A natural disaster is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe of genuinely epic proportions in significant part because of the malign neglect of the regime," said Miliband, the British foreign secretary.

"I would be amazed if there hadn't been about 100,000 who had died already ... what's more, hundreds of thousands more are at risk," he told British Broadcasting Corp. television.

Aid was piling up in foreign countries, awaiting approval from the junta.

The country's main airport, in Yangon, should be accepting at least one flight every hour but is incapable of handling more than five a day, said PLAN, a London-based children's aid group.

"Logistically, the situation looks bleak," the group said in a statement. "In short, they have one congested airport, ill-equipped to deal with the influx of cargo, no port, restricted fuel and no trucks."

Aid group World Vision said it has requested visas for 20 people but received approval for only two. The U.N. World Food Program had one approved out of the 16 it requested.

Still, the U.N. was making some progress in aid delivery. The junta released 38 tons of high-energy biscuits to the World Food Program that were confiscated Friday, and several other shipments were on their way.

A senior British official accused the junta of "malign neglect." The first U.S. aid flight is to land today.

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