BANGKOK, Thailand – An estimated 1.5 million Myanmarese are on the brink of a “massive public health catastrophe,” the British charity Oxfam warned Sunday, as desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis poured out of the devastated Irrawaddy Delta into regional towns in search of water, food and other help.
Myanmar is facing a “perfect storm” of conditions that could lead to an outbreak of waterborne disease, said Sarah Ireland, Oxfam’s regional director.
“The ponds are full of dead bodies, the wells have saline water, and even things like a bucket are in scarce supply,” Ireland said. She appealed for Myanmar authorities, who have restricted access to the country, to allow humanitarian agencies to send in technical and health experts to help prevent disease outbreaks.
The struggling relief efforts suffered another setback when a boat ferrying rice, drinking water, clothing and other aid supplies sank in the delta early Sunday, apparently after hitting a submerged tree, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
Residents were able to salvage some of the supplies, meant for more than 1,000 survivors, but river water probably contaminated the food, the organization said. All of those aboard made it safely to land. The boat was carrying one of the first international aid shipments.
“This is a great loss,” said Aung Kyaw Htut, who is supervising the distribution effort. “This would have been our very first river shipment, and it will delay aid for a further day.”
The cyclone and powerful tidal sea surge ripped across the low-lying delta a week ago, with winds topping 120 mph. The country’s ruling junta on Sunday raised its official tally of the dead to more than 28,000, though humanitarian experts say the toll could run much higher. Thousands remain missing.
The dire warnings came as Myanmar’s state media declared success in a referendum to secure public endorsement of a new constitution that critics say would perpetuate and legitimize military rule. Burma’s leaders say the charter will lay the foundation for a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
With conditions in the delta increasingly desperate, many survivors began besieging small towns, searching for help. In the town of Laputta, which lost 85 percent of its buildings, about 28 makeshift camps have sprung up. But supplies are limited.
U.N. agencies and international charities that were operating in Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – before the disaster have been slowly setting up operations. Emergency supplies are gradually arriving in the country and just beginning to reach the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, but aid is far short of what is needed.
“Time is really of the essence. Already we have seen a diarrhea outbreak in the very urban areas of (Rangoon), and with cyclones you’d usually see pneumonia soon as well, and also malaria because of the standing water,” said Naida Pasion, the Myanmar program director for Save the Children, which maintains a staff of 500 in the country.
The World Food Program, which on Friday accused authorities of impounding planeloads of emergency food, said cargo and materials sent since then had been released and sent to the disaster zones. The International Committee of the Red Cross also sent a planeload of relief supplies Sunday, including body bags.
Yet a week on, most survivors have not yet received any help because of the lack of supplies and logistical difficulties.