Aid workers still waiting to enter Myanmar's delta - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Aid workers still waiting to enter Myanmar's delta

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Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2008 1:15 am | Updated: 11:24 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

BANGKOK, Thailand - Myanmar needs more than food and shelter. It needs human expertise for everything from cleaning water to mental health counseling - and right now, those experts can't get to the hard-hit delta.

Dozens of aid workers from UNICEF, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other groups are still stuck in Yangon, the nation's largest city, without the required travel permits to leave for the delta region.

These workers include Red Cross water quality engineers, for example, to train their local counterparts to run major drinking water treatment plants.

"The priority is drinking water," UNICEF spokeswoman Shantha Bloemen said Friday.

For the first several weeks after Cyclone Nargis struck May 2-3, few of the more than 2 million survivors received any help. Myanmar's government only has about 15 transport planes that cannot carry tons of food and up to 40 aging helicopters, many not working, experts say.

Foreign aid agencies are now trying to get in not just trucks and helicopters, but also workers with experience from dealing with disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami and the 2005 Pakistani earthquake.

"It's not about extra pairs of hands; there are special skills that are required," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian effort that is trying, like other groups, to reach the country's flooded Irrawaddy delta.

Relief officials say they are poised to:

- Set up dozens of drinking water treatment plants in the delta and operate hand pumps and other equipment to desalinate wells and fields contaminated by the saltwater tidal surge.

- Send in health and nutrition experts to track disease and to identify acute cases of malnutrition, particularly in children, and mental health counselors.

- Join local teams to conduct emergency assessments of just what help is most needed, including food, water, shelter and medicine, and how many schools and other public facilities are required. UNICEF said Friday that more than 4,000 schools serving 1 million children were either damaged or destroyed.

Some people in Myanmar are already trained to deal with similar problems but not on such a large scale, said John Sparrow, Red Cross spokesman for the Asia-Pacific region.

"The kind of expertise you need doesn't come overnight, and that's why we need the expatriates in there," he said. Those who have handled multiple disasters will be able to reach more people and work more efficiently and quickly, he said.

On Saturday, a U.N. official warned Myanmar against prematurely resettling cyclone refugees, saying those who leave relief camps may not receive the aid they need and will become even more vulnerable to disease and the elements.

Human rights groups have lambasted Myanmar's military rulers, accusing them of kicking homeless cyclone survivors out of shelters. The U.S. defense secretary said the junta's blockage of international help has cost "tens of thousands of lives."

But Myanmar's deputy defense minister, Maj. Gen. Aye Myint, said Sunday that his government responded promptly to the emergency by opening relief camps, providing food and water to cyclone victims, restoring electricity and clearing roads.

Relief operations are now over and the government is now concentrating on rehabilitation and rebuilding, he told a security conference in Singapore.

Few countries can deal with such a huge disaster, let alone one of the poorest nations in Asia. Senior Gen. Than Shwe and other top generals who run the country have spent most of the money on the military's 400,000 soldiers.

But some foreign aid workers with a history of working in Myanmar say the government's resistance to foreign assistance also has sparked an impressive grass roots effort to deliver aid.

"It's come from the Myanmar people themselves," said Curt Bradner, who with his wife, Cathy, has been working on a water treatment project called Thirst-Aid the past two years in Myanmar.

"They may not be responding as quickly as the international community would like to see happen," he said of Myanmar's people. "But in their own way, they're really doing an excellent job. This is a country that is 300 years behind the rest of the world, in many respects. Only 7 percent of the country has electricity. It's astounding."

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