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Damage in Myanmar Is Revealed as Aid Trickles In

May 9, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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As thousands of people in Myanmar continue to languish in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, humanitarian assistance is slowly trickling in despite disputes with the country's military rulers over the distribution of the aid. Two aid officials update the situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Next, we hear from one of the relief organizations that’s been working in Burma even before the cyclone. Judy Woodruff talked earlier today with Andrew Kirkwood, the country director for Save the Children. He’s in Rangoon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Kirkwood, what is the situation there as you know it now?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD, Save the Children: Just a couple of hours ago, we heard the latest death toll is up to about 116,000. And that was compiled from the U.N. from sort of collating a number of independent assessments that have come in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And where is most of the death toll?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: It’s in pretty much all the southern part of the delta. If you look at that part of a — if you look at a map, it’s that whole southern part of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Disease, lack of water main issues

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us what Save the Children has been doing and is trying to do right now.

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Well, starting on Monday, we were able to get out to some of the really badly affected areas closer to Yangon -- Rangoon, sorry. And in those areas, we've been able to already reach 72,000 people whose homes were destroyed.

And at 7:30 this evening -- so three hours ago -- our first boatload of supplies left Pathein, which is the large city west of the delta, to make it down to the very southwestern tip, which was the first part of the country hit by the cyclone.

And we expect that this 100-ton boat full of food and water will arrive at first light tomorrow morning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if that's one boatload, how many more boatloads of such supplies are going to be needed?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: It's hard to imagine. I mean, depending on how many people we find down there, we're not sure exactly what we're going to see down there, but the food and water and other supplies on board that ship will be good for a couple of days.

So you can imagine that this is going to require a huge logistical effort. It's difficult to see where all of the ships required or the boats required are going to come from, when so many of them were destroyed in the cyclone itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is your understanding of the conditions there and what is needed?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: We're really, really worried about people getting access to fresh water. I mean, the storm surge, the tidal surge, what we fear is very little fresh water to drink. So dehydration, ironically, amid all that water is a real worry.

And where people have had access to water, we're convinced that much of it is going to be contaminated. I think there's many, many stories coming out now of dead bodies, bloated bodies in the water, dead animal carcasses. Certainly, disease is a huge issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a complication is the position of the Burmese government, that they don't want most outside aid workers in the country? They are willing to accept aid, but not assistance people?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: I mean, that's obviously incredibly disappointing. We would certainly -- at Save the Children -- would like to be bringing in reinforcements and experts in this kind of operation. Not being able to do so, it affects us for sure.

But it hasn't affected us as much as it has some of the other agencies, because we've been lucky, in a sense, to have over 500 staff on the ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you compare this with other disasters that you and Save the Children have had to work with?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Well, I mean, the one that comes to mind, probably most quickly, is the tsunami, in the sense that now we're talking about similar numbers of people, similar numbers of children affected, and similar numbers of children who have died, and the fact that, you know, we're talking about an inundation of salt water.

There are many, many similar problems. And, in fact, if one remembers in Aceh in Indonesia, there was a problem for access for the international aid effort at the beginning, as well.

And all we can hope in this case is that access does eventually -- is granted and that more people and supplies can get in. I mean, this is just sort of mind-bogglingly big at the moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it that is mainly needed in this delta area that was devastated by the cyclone?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: I mean, it's so many things. Fresh water is a big problem, clean water, food, shelter materials, drugs.

People are starting to move, for sure. People are already arriving in some of the larger centers that are less affected. We had 7,000 people reportedly arrived this morning in a town called Miongya.

And these people are arriving with injuries, infections, fever, diarrhea. I mean, everybody is incredibly weak. And I imagine that similar scenes are being played out across the delta over the last couple of days and will continue tomorrow and the next day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say they're arriving, they're arriving how?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: They're arriving in canoes, on foot. I mean, it's hard to imagine how people have been able to reach some of these centers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And once they get there, is the help there that they need?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: In some places, yes. I mean, in some places assistance is getting in. But we estimate overall that about 10 percent of those people affected have had assistance -- have had assistance reach them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So there's still a huge percentage more?

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Oh, I mean, to be a week on from the cyclone and only having reached 10 percent of those affected is, yes, an awful situation to be in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Kirkwood, country director for Save the Children in Burma, talking to us from Rangoon. Thank you very much, and we wish you good luck with the massive job ahead.

ANDREW KIRKWOOD: Thank you very much.

Aid slowly trickling in

John Holmes
U.N. Under-Secretary General
We've had flights in from Unicef with medical supplies today. There will be another flight tomorrow. And so the aid is beginning to arrive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the past 24 hours, tensions have mounted between the Burmese generals and agencies of the United Nations trying to bring in relief. We get an assessment of where things stand now from U.N. Under Secretary General John Holmes. He is in charge of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief efforts.

Mr. Under Secretary, today you put out what you at the U.N. call a "flash appeal" for $187 million. What would this money be used for?

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations Under Secretary General: Well, it would be used for all the kinds of things that your guest from one of the NGOs was just talking about: a very large amount for food, around $60 million; a very big chunk for logistics, because we recognize exactly the same problem as he does, is that actually moving material and people around in the delta is going to pose a huge logistical challenge, and we're going to need helicopters and boats and trucks and all that kind of thing.

So logistics are enormous. Then there is medical supplies. There's clean water, water purification tablets.

And then, in the longer term, we're going to start to need to rebuild the agriculture, although the immediate focus is on actually saving lives and getting those vital materials in.

So it covers all those things. And we hope that the international donors, the main donor countries will respond generously. And when I launched it today in the U.N., I got the impression that that would be the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if you can't get the aid that's available now into Burma, why go ahead and ask for more money?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, obviously, we thought about that, but, actually, aid -- and I'd almost postponed the launch today -- but aid is getting there. We had some flights in from the World Food Programme. There were some arguments about how to distribute the aid, but it's there.

We've had flights in from Unicef with medical supplies today. There will be another flight tomorrow. And so the aid is beginning to arrive.

Onward distribution into the delta is the huge challenge, and that's not just a question of cooperation with the authorities, vital though that is, but it's also a question of this logistical problem I was talking about.

So we need to get that capacity up. We need to have the resources there. The aid agencies, the NGOs need to have the resources behind them to scale up their efforts massively, to try and deal with this enormous challenge.

Regime main bottleneck to aid

John Holmes
U.N. Under-Secretary General
The government representative of Myanmar here in New York said that aid from any quarter will be welcome and a U.S. plane will be able to land there in the next couple of days. That's some little progress at least.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard the gentleman from Save the Children say something like only 10 percent of the people who need help have been reached. Does that square with what your understanding is?

JOHN HOLMES: I think he may not be wrong. My figure is that we may have reached, one way or the other, about 260,000 people, and we're talking about perhaps about 1.5 million people who are most severely affected. Those are our best estimates, but we don't claim they're absolutely scientifically accurate.

So maybe that's slightly nearer 20 percent. But, clearly, the effort reaching these people is wholly inadequate so far, and we're extremely frustrated that we can't move faster.

But, as I say, it's not just a question of the cooperation with the authorities, vital though that is, and however much they need to improve it, and we're pushing them very hard to do that. It's also a question of getting the material in, getting it onwards, and solving these logistical problems, which are perhaps our biggest challenge of all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You did tell -- you were interviewed here on the NewsHour a couple of days ago. You told my colleague, Margaret Warner, you were strongly urging the government of Burma to let these aid workers in. Have you made any progress in that area?

JOHN HOLMES: In terms of aid work, there's very little. We've got a couple of our people in a couple of days ago. One or two visas have been given, but, by and large, they're still saying, "Well, we can handle it. We don't really need foreign aid workers."

As you heard from the NGO interview, either, that's not good enough, because we need the experienced people who actually know how to do this, know how to distribute aid, have faced these kind of problems before.

The regime simply can't cope on its own, and they mustn't imagine they can. That's why we need these people in there.

We had some relatively good news today, at least. The government representative of Myanmar here in New York said that aid from any quarter will be welcome and a U.S. plane will be able to land there in the next couple of days. That's some little progress at least.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are you or anyone else, from Secretary General Moon at the U.N., are any of you able to talk to the very top military leaders in Burma?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I've been trying to get hold of ministers myself. We are talking to the ministers on the spot with our people there who are talking to the ministers in charge of the aid effort. I've been trying to talk to the foreign minister, but not being able to get through.

The secretary general has been trying very hard for sometime now to talk to the top general. He hasn't been able to get through, either.

Now, I don't know whether that's a technical problem or unwillingness to take the call, but we really need to get that kind of dialogue going more intensively at that level than it has been so far, to persuade them that there's nothing to fear from aid workers.

They're just there to help them help their people, and that help is desperately needed. This is a massive challenge, a massive disaster. The scale of human suffering is almost unimaginable.

So we really need to get that aid there quickly, and we do need help from the authorities to do that.

Pressure brought to bear on junta

John Holmes
U.N. Under-Secretary General
[W]e dealing with an isolated, suspicious government who don't like foreign intervention, fear foreign intervention, and, therefore, see any foreigners turning up as likely to be difficult for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, do you have a sense that they understand the magnitude of this catastrophe?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, they seem to accept in the initial stages that it was well beyond their capabilities, which is why they asked for international assistance.

But I think the problem is we're dealing with an isolated, suspicious government who don't like foreign intervention, fear foreign intervention, and, therefore, see any foreigners turning up as likely to be difficult for them.

But we're trying to make the point privately and publicly that these are international aid workers. They have nothing to do with politics; they're not interested in regime change or anything else. They're just interested in helping people.

I'm not sure that message is getting through yet, but we're going to go on trying to ram it home as much as we can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about trying to use some of the countries in the area that have influence on the Burmese, China, India? We heard in a report just a few minutes ago the U.S. has asked the Chinese to try to use their influence. What have you -- have you made any progress there?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, we've been talking to the Chinese, to other neighbors, particularly the countries of ASEAN, who have a much better relationship with Myanmar than many other countries, and urging them to use their influence as much as they can to persuade the Myanmar authorities that they've got nothing to fear, that the situation is too urgent to worry about procedures or suspicions or fears. They just need to get that help in any way we can right now.

I think they are using that influence, and we're urging them to step it up. And we're also trying to cooperate with them, because they are well-placed maybe to provide some of the assets we need, whether they're military, helicopters, civilian, boats, whatever they may be, because we're going to need all the help we can get in the next few days and weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So to understand correctly, you're saying the Chinese and others are telling the Burmese that they should change their position? Is that...

JOHN HOLMES: I think they are privately. I think they are. They've all said that publicly, as well. They're doing it in a way which they believe will be most effective, i.e., they're doing it in a diplomatic way rather than trying to club the authorities over the head.

That's their choice. They know that scene well. But we just want to see the effect. We just want to see things start to move even faster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Have you ever seen a situation like this, where you had a natural disaster and the government was preventing help from getting to the people who needed it?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, we've had similar problems on a smaller scale before. Some of the tsunami damage was in areas where there were conflicts going on, and that certainly complicates life every time.

But I think it's unprecedented, perhaps, for a dramatic catastrophe of this scale to be combined with dealing with a government which is so suspicious of the outside world that it's very reluctant to allow people in, although they are saying they welcome material goods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what would you say, Ambassador Holmes, is being lost every day this aid doesn't get to the people who need it? And how worried are you about the rains that are forecast for next week?

JOHN HOLMES: I'm extremely worried about the whole situation. Reaching people in the delta is a massive challenge. Even if we had the best cooperation in the world, it would be a massive challenge, and we certainly don't have that.

So I'm extremely worried about the situation in general. The prospect of heavy rain in the next few days only adds to those worries.

It simply is impossible to put a figure on how many lives are being lost by this delay or that delay, but what is obviously true is that there's no time to lose, not a second to lose, never mind days to lose, if we're going to get people the help they need and prevent what we most fear, which is some kind of epidemic which will strike people who are weakened by lack of shelter, lack of food, lack of clean water, and therefore extremely vulnerable.

We want to avoid a second catastrophe on top of the first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No question about it. United Nations Under Secretary General John Holmes, we thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: You can find more information about how you can donate to relief agencies on our Web site, as well as an interview from Rangoon with a relief worker from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Just go to