Cyclone damaged Myanmar "rice bowl"
The Washington Post
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, The Associated Press reported. A U.S. diplomat said the death toll, now tentatively at least 22,000, could reach 100,000.
As evidence mounted of long-term damage to Myanmar's "rice bowl," one of the world's premier rice-producing zones, 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.
Four Asian citizens who are part of a U.N. emergency team were cleared by the government to enter Myanmar today, but a fifth member, a Westerner, got no permission, and close to 40 others remained uncleared, the United Nations said.
As impatience mounted, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, proposed invoking a newly established U.N. doctrine known as "responsibility to protect" in order to deliver aid directly to people without awaiting official approval.
France pressed the idea at a Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday.
But China, Russia, South Africa and Vietnam blocked the initiative on grounds that the council — which deals with threats to international peace and security — had no business meddling in a domestic crisis.
Some U.N. officials voiced irritation with the proposal.
"I'm not sure that invading Myanmar would be a very sensible option at this particular moment," said John Holmes, the U.N.'s chief emergency coordinator. "I'm not sure it would be helpful to the people we're actually trying to help." Myanmar is also known as Burma.
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 having trouble overcoming their traditional xenophobia, particularly toward 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," a foreign aid worker said.
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 she was hearing indications that the death toll may rise to 100,000, The Associated Press reported.
Despite the continuing uncertainty, the Rome-based World Food Program (WFP) has sent four aircraft containing 45 metric tons of high-energy biscuits and other supplies from storage facilities in Bangladesh, Italy, United Arab Emirates. 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 massive task of cleaning up and repairing the city's shattered infrastructure. According to the government, 671 people were killed in and around the city.
State-controlled newspapers have appealed for patience and public understanding of the challenge confronting the authorities, while state TV has aired images of soldiers delivering aid goods. But among the colonial-era former capital's middle-class residents, anger is growing at the military, which many people see as slow to respond to the catastrophe.
Five days after the storm, many residents are still busily working to clear away decades-old trees that once lined streets but that now, fallen, choke them.
"Around my neighborhood, the men are going out with saws and choppers from the kitchen," said Ma Thanegi, a prominent Myanmar writer, in a telephone interview.
Ludu Sein Win, a prominent retired journalist, said in a telephone interview that "in the past, if one person came out holding a poster for a protest, dozens and dozens of soldiers and police came out in five minutes. But now nobody can help us. They say we have to do everything by ourselves."
City workers have begun the massive job of restoring the electricity system, which was totally knocked out by the cyclone, with virtually all power poles uprooted.
Without electricity, water pumps can't run, leading households to scramble for clean drinking water.
Many of Yangon's more affluent residents have long relied on small, diesel-fueled generators to provide electricity during the long power outages that plagued the city even before the disaster. Such generators can run water pumps — if there's fuel, which is now running short.
Lining up for diesel — which has doubled in price since the disaster — can be a full-time job. "To get four gallons, you wait from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.," said one city resident.
Water trucks are selling to poorer families, but at high prices. Food prices too have risen in local markets, putting a huge burden on poor families.
Even before the cyclone sent a powerful tidal surge across vast swathes of the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, the region's production was far below inherent potential. Many economists blame that on state controls that they say gave farmers little incentive to boost yields. Myanmar had nevertheless remained self-sufficient in rice, but its exports dwindled.
The cyclone's savage harm to the delta, which normally accounts for about 65 percent of Myanmar rice output, could cause food problems for the foreseeable future.
Already, rice prices in Yangon markets have surged by nearly 50 per cent. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that Myanmar may not meet commitments to export about 600,000 tons of rice in 2008.
The cyclone struck just as the region's paddy farmers were harvesting the dry-season crop, which accounts for a fourth of the country's annual production.
The tidal surge sent seawater as far as 35 miles inland, satellite photos show, depositing salt that could make paddy land infertile.
Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar at Australia's Macquarie University and editor of Burma Economic Watch, said the region's long-neglected, colonial-era irrigation systems probably took a heavy blow as well.
"Rice-growing depends on being able to distribute water properly," he said. "We have seen channels and dikes, which had been slowly degrading and silting up, inundated. One can only imagine the damage has been great."
"I think the overall projection is of incredible hardship," Turnell said. "In the short term, we are going to see real shortages — and the price of rice is going to be very high."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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