Relief supplies bound for cyclone-ravaged Myanmar are loaded in Delhi, India.
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
Relief has begun trickling into Myanmar after the weekend's devastating Cyclone Nargis. James East of World Vision, one of the few aid agencies with a longstanding presence there, talks about the challenges ahead and says the situation could equal or eclipse the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
"We know from helicopter pictures that it's largely flattened," East says of Mynamar's hardest-hit areas. "Storm surge would have flooded across the paddy fields and washed homes away."
He says one of the critical damage points is the Irrawaddy valley, a fairly poor area that is also home to Myanmar's rice bowl. He says people there, where at least 10,000 are feared dead, grew much of the country's food and have lost their crops and homes, and they will need help starting from scratch.
Military helicopters are helping to get aid in, but they carry too little, East says. For now, though, there aren't many other options. After the cyclone, much of Myanmar has become a vast flooded delta that is entirely inaccessible, he says. Bridges are down, and aside from using helicopters, aid workers have to travel on foot or by boat. In some cases, they are even swimming across rivers, East says.
The situation is as bad as what was seen in 2004 and '05 in the wake of an undersea earthquake, he says. Back then, a giant earthquake under the Indian Ocean triggered a massive tsunami that killed at least 200,000 people.
"We all have pictures of that tsunami, which struck mostly southeast Asia," East says. "One of my colleagues said the situation [in Myanmar] is as bad as the tsunami. In fact, he says it's worse."
But at least one happy result came from the 2004 disaster: Rebels and the government in the Indonesian province of Aceh, which was locked in a spasm of conflict before the tsunami, began a peace process. "It would be wonderful to think that out of the ashes of this [Myanmar] disaster that there might be some kind of reconciliation — an opportunity."
For now, East is eager for immediate aid to reach the stricken population, in the form of tents, medicines, water purification systems, kitchen sets and mosquito nets.
"It basically comes down to money," East says. "We can make a difference. ... The scale of this thing is so big that we really need to have a full-blown international response. Not just for the short term — these people will need long-term assistance."
Myanmar Appeals for Global Aid as Death Toll Rises
Myanmar's military government is struggling to cope with a devastating cyclone that hit Saturday. Officials said Tuesday that at least 22,000 were killed and hundreds of thousands are homeless.
Unlike after the tsunami a few years ago, Myanmar's reclusive government has appealed for help from international aid agencies as food and water run short — although there are no reports yet of new aid being allowed in.
"We have to welcome the fact that they've said that they need international aid," James East, World Vision communications director for the Asia-Pacific region, tells Steve Inskeep. "That's a change. I would like to think it's an opportunity for engagement."
President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. aid was already making its way to the stricken country.
"The United States has made an initial aid contribution, but we want to do a lot more. We're prepared to move U.S. Navy assets to help find those who have lost their lives, to help find the missing and to help stabilize the situation. But in order to do so, the military junta must allow our disaster assessment teams into the country."
East says there are reports of piles of bodies in the hardest-hit areas. And in eight townships in a low-lying river delta, 95 percent of the homes had severe damage — which amounts to 2 million people, he says.
World Vision has hundreds of people working in Myanmar, where access is strictly regulated. Normally, those workers are dealing with issues of agricultural assistance, trafficking and HIV/AIDS, East says. They're now engaged in assessing the scale of the disaster and distributing water and rice to stricken areas.