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Aid Begins to Trickle Into Myanmar but Recovery Is Slow

May 8, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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The first relief shipments arrived in Myanmar Thursday after resistance from the country's reclusive military government to foreign assistance. Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon, and UNICEF's Richard Bridle discuss the aid response for the tens of thousands left homeless by the cyclone.
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RAY SUAREZ: I spoke earlier today with Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Rangoon. Ms. Shari Villarosa, can you give us an update? In the last 24 hours, has the situation improved? Is food and water getting out?

SHARI VILLAROSA, Top U.S. Diplomat in Myanmar: There is some recovery efforts going on. There is some aid coming in and getting distributed, but still not in large quantities.

And, late this afternoon, we got the bad news that the foreign ministry is going to turn down not only our request to send in disaster assistance experts, but that of all the aid agencies that were hoping to send them in.

RAY SUAREZ: Did they give you any explanation for that decision?

SHARI VILLAROSA: No.

RAY SUAREZ: Are they letting similar offers of aid go through from, for instance, regional neighbors?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Not really.

What we — they — they will accept aid from anyone, including the United States, but in terms of commodities. But they don’t seem to want the people.

The Singaporeans and the Thais have offered to send in medical teams, various things like that, and they have also been — gotten the brush-off.

Disaster getting worse with time

RAY SUAREZ: Does that decision, in effect, operate as a bottleneck and slow the arrival of aid in the places in the delta where it's really needed?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Very much so, because the country lacks the basic infrastructure to get massive quantities of aid out to the areas in need, in particular, in the delta, where there's very few roads to begin with, the bridges have washed out, and people are still under water.

RAY SUAREZ: So, the argument could be made, if I understand you correctly, that this government has made a decision that will end up with more people dying?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Certainly more people getting sick and going hungry. And as they go sick and go hungry, that could indeed result in more deaths.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any sign that the people of the country themselves are pushing back, that they want the kind of help being offered that is not being accepted by their government?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Oh, they definitely want it. They're not seeing any assistance. They're hungry. They lack clean water. They lack shelter, or they lack adequate shelter. They're in desperate need of this assistance. They would very much welcome it.

RAY SUAREZ: What's your best estimate now on how many people have been lost?

SHARI VILLAROSA: The government has announced the figures as 23,000 dead and 42,000 missing. Most of the missing are believed to have been swept out to sea by this -- the storm surges. But others working in the area, they haven't gotten to all the areas, that the -- that the actual number of dead could exceed 100,000 people.

Government obstructs relief effort

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a case of the government of Burma deciding to show the world that it can handle this by itself?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Yes. I mean, I think it is very much a question of national pride, that we don't need foreigners. They don't like foreigners in general. And it's: We don't need foreigners. We can do it ourselves. You know, send us the goods. We will get them out.

But then they can't. They lack the resources to get the goods from, say, Rangoon, if they come by air, out to these devastated communities in the delta.

RAY SUAREZ: This is a government the United States had some very difficult relationships with in the recent past. Is this a frustrating situation for you?

SHARI VILLAROSA: Very much so, because, I mean, this doesn't have to do -- you know, our difficult relationship is well-known, but this has nothing to do with our political differences. This has to do with a genuine humanitarian emergency on a massive scale.

Not only does the United States want to reach out, but the entire international community wants to help, wants to get assistance to the millions of people affected by this terrible storm. And we're getting the stiff-arm. They will take the goods, but they don't want the experts to make sure that the victims actually get this, this desperately needed assistance.

RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Villarosa, thanks so much for talking to us.

SHARI VILLAROSA: Thank you.

Getting aid to where it is needed

RAY SUAREZ: Now the perspective from organizations on the front lines trying to get aid to the victims in Myanmar.

I talked earlier today with Richard Bridle in Bangkok, Thailand. He's UNICEF's deputy regional director for East Asia and the Pacific.

Richard Bridle, are people getting the help they need?

RICHARD BRIDLE, Deputy Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, UNICEF: Well, we're certainly able to deliver some of the help that's needed by children.

That being said, this is a big emergency. It's a lot bigger than I think we realized, all of us, at the beginning. I suspect it's going to be bigger than we imagine it will be now. We need to ramp up. We need to get more supplies in. And we especially need to get into Myanmar.

I don't think that we're going to lack the resources to do the job. But, at the moment, we are not really getting the facilities that we need to be able to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: What are the kinds of threats that are out there now, as time wears on?

RICHARD BRIDLE: Half or more than half of the population have moved out of their regular dwellings, and they're congregating into monasteries, pagodas, the schools that are still left standing.

And they will be drinking whatever water they can find. There is water around, of course, but it's from ponds. It's from rivers. And it's largely untreated. Where we have been able to provide assistance, we have been giving them water treatment tablets or bleaching powder. We have been making sure that there are -- water containers have been distributed.

There are problems of food distribution, getting food into the country, and, of course, then moving food on once it does get into the country. So, people are probably scavenging for what they can find.

My big worry at the moment is that, with the poor diets, with people being weak and drinking dirty water, that we may begin to see an increase in diarrheal disease, and we may begin to see some highly pathogenic diarrheal diseases.

With so much stagnant water, also, we're going to have a lot of mosquitoes around, and we could begin to see an increase in malaria or dengue fever.

Children hit hardest by storm

RAY SUAREZ: Children are disproportionately affected by this tragedy, aren't they?

RICHARD BRIDLE: I know that there's this figure of around 40 percent of the victims could be children.

They probably are disproportionately affected. First of all, when you have got these sort of large walls of water coming at people, if you're big, you can probably get out of the way. If you're small, it's going to hit you, and it's more likely to kill you.

And then, yes, of course, in terms of who's going to get the diarrheal diseases and so on, that's much more likely to happen in children, with less well-developed immune systems, than in adults.

The other thing is, of course, that, in a small child, it's never enough, even in the best of conditions, for a small child just to eat two or three times a day. Children need to eat much more frequently. And, when you're in lean times, everybody goes without. That's going to affect the kids more than it is the adults.

RAY SUAREZ: It is a much bigger disaster than the world realizes, as you suggest, but is the government of Myanmar behaving accordingly?

RICHARD BRIDLE: Well, you know, if you're asking me, is the government doing enough, then I'm afraid I would have to say, no, it's not doing enough.

I mean, it's certainly doing a lot of the right things in terms of, it's set up a central coordination mechanism, with the minister of social welfare in charge of that. The Myanmar Red Cross is doing a superb job in distributing relief supplies.

We do need to get our specialists into the country. And, for that, we need the government to agree that they're going to issue the visas for those specialists. And we also need to sort out the logistics. The Port of Yangon is presently closed. That's one of the consequences of the cyclone. So, we need to make sure that we have much greater facility to bring in air freight.

And, in my view, there's an awful lot that we could be doing by moving goods over land, say, from Thailand, from Yunnan Province in China, from Bangladesh -- potentially from parts of India as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Bridle, thanks a lot for speaking with us.

RICHARD BRIDLE: You're welcome.