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Risk of disease multiplies Myanmar disaster

Survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar construct a temporary shelter. A UMNS photo courtesy of Church World Service/ACT. 

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

May 29, 2008

A prolonged lack of access to relief supplies has created a "second wave of disaster" that is poised to strike the people of Myanmar, according to Church World Service.

Aid workers train storm survivors to prepare clean drinking water. A UMNS photo courtesy of Church World Service/ACT.

CWS staff and partners are concerned that many survivors of Cyclone Nargis are at risk of disease because of contaminated drinking water. "This is, unfortunately, one of the downsides of a delayed response," said Matt Hackworth, communications officer for CWS, in a May 28 interview.

The United Nations estimates that 2.4 million people have been impacted by the May 3 cyclone, which left 134,000 people dead or missing. Following the cyclone, the government of Myanmar (Burma) blocked most foreign aid workers from assisting the survivors. Those restrictions seemed to be loosening in late May after Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, reached an agreement with the chief of Myanmar’s military junta, and U.N. and other relief workers began to travel into the cyclone-ravaged delta region.

CWS has been able to provide some assistance through its long-term partnerships with four different local organizations operating within Myanmar, Hackworth told United Methodist News Service. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has given $60,000 to CWS for that work, which includes providing clean water, water containers and water purification supplies, along with emergency shelter and food to survivors.

Both CWS and UMCOR are part of Action by Churches Together International, an alliance supporting and coordinating with the local organizations in Myanmar. ACT members have assisted more than 100,000 cyclone survivors.

UMCOR also allocated $35,000 through the Methodist Church in Singapore to Bishop Zothan Mawia, leader of the Methodist Church of the Union of Myanmar (Lower Myanmar).

Mawia, who was a delegate to the April 23-May 2 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was still in the United States when the cyclone struck. He returned to Myanmar on May 23 and was planning to assess relief needs for both Methodist and non-Methodist cyclone survivors in his area.

Death by diarrhea

Clean water and sanitation are top priorities for the work in the Irrawaddy Delta, the low-lying region on Myanmar’s west coast that was most impacted by the cyclone. According to the Asian Times Online, the delta has the highest population density in Myanmar, and about 4 million people there actually could have been affected by the disaster.

Relief workers coordinate aid requests.
A UMNS photo courtesy of Church World Service/ACT.

"Some of our people on the ground in remote villages have seen children as young as 4 and the elderly die of diarrhea," Hackworth told United Methodist News Service. "We’ve seen deaths from cholera and other waterborne diseases."

Local aid teams are delivering lightweight, 975-liter water baskets made of a collapsible, cloth-like plastic that can provide drinking water for 450 people a day when filled with purified water or rainwater. "The more of these baskets that we can get out into the Irrawaddy Delta, the more people will have access to clean water," he said.

"Logistics remain a key challenge," Hackworth added. "All of the indications we find from our local partners on the ground are that even trucks … aren’t going to be much good. It’s going to require small boats and other means to get relief to the hardest-hit areas."

The relationships that CWS had in Myanmar has allowed for a quick response, with supplies purchased within the country. "These local organizations know where the smallest, hardest-hit areas are," he noted.

Cautious optimism

Even for insiders, the relief effort has been "very difficult" due to government restrictions, according to Hackworth. There is cautious optimism about the U.N. agreement. "As the days have gone on, it seems as if more aid is being allowed into the country," he explained. "For groups like Church World Service, that’s a big hope."

Future food security also remains a concern for Myanmar, since the Irrawaddy Delta is considered the country’s rice bowl. Rice seeds need to be planted within the next month to six weeks.

Donations to UMCOR Advance No. 3019674, Myanmar Emergency, can be made online at www.givetomission.org. Checks also can be dropped into church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, N.Y. 10087-9068. Write the Advance number and name on the memo line of the check. Credit-card donations are accepted by phone at (800) 554-8583. 

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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