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Myanmar's worsening crisis
by MATTHEW TREVISAN, The Globe and Mail, May 8, 2008
Yangon, Myanmar -- As international relief workers struggle to provide assistance to survivors in the immediate aftermath of cyclone Nargis, five major crises in the Irrawaddy delta threaten to multiply the already devastating human toll in the coming weeks and months.
The low-lying areas of the Irrawaddy delta provided Myanmar with the majority of its rice supply. But the cyclone wiped out the region's entire crop, and that damage will have profound implications for the country's food supply in the immediate and distant future.
"To have the next crop, they will need seedlings, which they don't have because the crop is gone," said Ramesh Shrestha, Unicef representative in Myanmar.
There will be continual food shortages for millions of people, the majority of whom are poor farmers. And the salt water from the Bay of Bengal that's flooding the area will damage the land's fertility, until the salt water can be pumped out. The food shortage will likely cause already inflated food prices to surge higher because of the increased demand for food.
2. WATER AND SANITATION
It's only a matter of time - days, weeks - before the affected region sees its first outbreak of water-borne diseases such as dysentery, cholera and severe diarrhea.
Water in the region moves either through a piped network or through hand pumps, but many of the wells are overflowing with contaminated surface water from sewers and septic tanks.
"If we don't get access to these areas now, the scope of the disaster will increase by two- or three-folds by what we've seen today," said Gregory Beck, the International Rescue Committee's regional director of Asia.
As the weather becomes more humid, malaria and dengue fever may fester in the pools of water. And the longer victims go without proper medical treatment and clean water, the more vulnerable their immune systems will be.
According to UN officials and Western diplomats, 1.5 million people were left homeless by the disaster. A tidal wave wiped out half the houses in low-lying villages and, as survivors rushed to higher ground, family members separated from each other in the chaos.
And the International Red Cross said yesterday it will provide emergency shelter and aid to thousands of prisoners in Myanmar after their places of detention were damaged by the cyclone, AFP reported.
Mr. Shrestha said survivors have tried to take shelter in monasteries and schools still standing on higher ground, but with the rainy season just about to start, the region is still susceptible to extreme weather conditions. "We still need to prepare for what may come along the way," he said. "It's not over yet."
Relief organizations will be providing tents, tarpaulins and zinc sheets to survivors for shelter.
Survivors have overwhelmed the hospitals that are still standing. Schools have been destroyed. There is a severe shortage of fuel. Twenty-four million people are without electricity and running water, according to UN officials and Western diplomats. And most of the region's roads are still submerged.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that some aid workers said heavily flooded areas were accessible only by boat, with helicopters unable to find dry spots for landing relief supplies.
"The scale and scope of this disaster is still not fully understood by the communities in Myanmar or the international community," Mr. Beck said. "So, as the days go by, I think we're going to be shocked by the impact."
5. POLITICAL CLIMATE
Myanmar's military regime has delayed foreign aid workers' visas and has been reluctant to allow international agencies to operate freely. Millions of starving people in desperate need of help will be caught in the ideological divide between Myanmar and the international community.
"There hasn't been a free and open dialogue on how to reconcile the difference so that 50 million people don't get caught in this political-ideological difference between [Myanmar] and the global environment," Mr. Shrestha said.
Myanmar's military regime plans to go ahead with a constitutional referendum on Saturday, despite the catastrophic damage inflicted upon one of the country's most densely populated regions, AFP reported. The voting will take place two weeks later in the 47 townships hardest-hit by the cyclone, state television announced.