Burma (Myanmar) reels from Cyclone Nargis


Burma (Myanmar) reels from Cyclone Nargis

May 6, 2008

Family members sit in their home destroyed by cyclone Nargis at a Burmese town of Bogalay, southwest of Rangoon May 8, 2008. Reuters/Stringer, courtesy www.alertnet.org

Watch now! Ruth Messinger, AJWS President, talks about the organization’s response to the cyclone in Burma (Myanmar) on Fox News.

Learn more about the crisis in Burma and how AJWS is responding.

Cyclone Nargis, which ripped through Burma* (also known as Myanmar) on May 2, is continuing to devastate the country. While the official death toll has risen to almost 78,000, aid agencies estimate that the number of dead could be 128,000 or higher. At least one million are currently homeless, and up to 2.5 million are at risk of hunger and disease. This could be the world's deadliest natural disaster since the tsunami of 2004.

The event has become an immense humanitarian disaster because the junta that currently controls Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), refused to allow most foreign aid workers into the country and heavily restricted the movements of those it did allow in. On May 23, some three long weeks after the cyclone hit, Burma's top leaders agreed to let all foreign aid workers and aid into the country, but the terms of this commitment are unclear. Prior to this announcement, only an estimated 30% of the affected population was thought to be receiving assistance. Reports from AJWS sources on the ground say that life-sustaining resources such as food, fresh water and medical care are systematically being denied to affected communities, particularly ethnic minorities such as the Karen, who make up 60% of the Irrawaddy River Delta region.

"The provision of lifesaving aid has been stalled due to the SPDC's underreporting and inept emergency management," reports an AJWS contact in the region. "The people of Burma (Myanmar) have been cheated out of accessing the help they desperately need during this devastating time." Another AJWS partner had this to say: "The situation is getting worse, day by day. People are dying because of the government's slow response."

The category four cyclone slammed into Rangoon and the Irrawaddy River Delta region damaging buildings, cutting off electricity, contaminating local water supplies and flooding vulnerable low-lying coastline areas. The combination of flooding, collapsed roads, landslides and the destruction of much of the country's already-poor infrastructure is hampering relief efforts. In the words of an AJWS contact in the region:

Flooding has created extremely hazardous conditions as diseases that already overwhelmingly afflict the people of Burma (Myanmar), particularly malaria, continue to spread rapidly with the influx of mosquitoes… Corpses all over the streets have created filthy, highly unsanitary conditions and are havens for parasites and infectious diseases. Clean water sources, as well as all food reserves, are now virtually nonexistent in the affected areas. Civilians have lost their life savings, their homes, and countless friends and family members. The already impoverished people of Burma (Myanmar) have nowhere to take refuge and nowhere to seek treatment for injuries and illness.

Given the SPDC's obstruction of international agencies, supporting community-led relief efforts is critical to ensuring the safety and health of the Burmese people during this disaster. AJWS has been making grants focused on Burma (Myanmar) since 2002 and has long-standing partnerships with grassroots organizations in the region. Through this network, AJWS is identifying and providing emergency support to local social welfare organizations and religious institutions that are responding to the immediate needs of Burma (Myanmar)'s people. Funds donated to AJWS will allow these organizations to provide food, water, cooking equipment, shelter, clothing and health services to those most in need. Funds will also go to providing cremation and funeral services for the victims of Cyclone Nargis: this is essential to prevent the spread of disease and protect water supplies from further contamination.

AJWS emergency funding is supporting the Emergency Assistance Team, a coordinated relief effort that includes the Mae Tao Clinic and several AJWS grantee partners. Inside Burma, the Emergency Assistance Team is visiting affected communities, assessing needs, distributing food, clean water, shelter and health services and disposing of dead bodies. The team is also documenting the scenes and abuses they are witnessing and producing regular situation reports.

"It is appalling that the SPDC opted to deflect immediate international attention away from this humanitarian disaster, delay entry visas to aid workers, and instead attempt to maintain authoritarian control over its people," says an AJWS contact in the region. "The suffering and devastation that have resulted are of alarming magnitude."

As the situation on the ground in Burma (Myanmar) continues to change, AJWS will continue to provide updates and reports from our grantees in the region. Click here to help the people of Burma (Myanmar).

*The name Myanmar was given to the country by the SPDC in 1989. However, pro-democracy activists still use the former name, Burma, to vocalize their objection to military rule. In solidarity with these activists AJWS refers to the country as Burma.