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June 5, 2008

Access remains tricky, food shortage looms

More than a month after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, the country still badly needs emergency relief aid as some of the survivors have yet to gain access to assistance, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

The MSF teams are still finding villages where survivors live in dire conditions and have not yet received any significant aid, said Frank Smithuis, head of MSF Myanmar, a local unit of MSF, one of the first organisations to provide large-scale assistance directly to Nargis victims.

The United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance said there was still a need for better and specific access for those workers into the affected areas despite the more flexible access for international aid workers over the past two weeks.

"Many areas are still empty and farmers haven't yet come back because of the lack of shelter and lack of food," the FAO's deputy regional representative Hiroyuki Konuma told reporters in Bangkok.

"If production is affected during monsoon season, then there might be a very serious shortage of rice and Myanmar will have to depend on imported rice from abroad," he told reporters.

The UN’s food and agriculture agency estimates that 16 percent of the 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of agricultural land in the Irrawaddy Delta region have been seriously damaged after the cyclone caused flooding, while sea water has poisoned the soil.

"It's likely that the harvest will not be able to take place for another year," said Paul Risley of the UN's World Food Programme.

Global rice prices have surged in the past year, and analysts have said that if a previously self-sustaining country like Myanmar begins importing, it could push prices of the staple grain even higher.

The FAO is trying to procure more rice seed within Myanmar and wants to sow special high-yield quick-growth varieties which will enable farmers to catch up for lost time as the sowing season nears its end in late July.

The cyclone also affected areas that once housed nearly half of all the pigs and poultry for meat production in Myanmar, but 20 percent of that livestock was lost to Cyclone Nargis.

Fisheries, on which 800,000 people depended, have also been severely affected, the FAO reports.

"These affected areas are the real national food box," said Konuma.

Junta spurns US aid offer
Meanwhile, the US Navy ships laden with relief supplies prepare to steam away from Myanmar's coast Thursday, their helicopters barred by the ruling junta even though millions of cyclone survivors need food, shelter or medical care.

More than a month after the storm, many people in stricken areas still have received no aid at all and the military regime continued to impose constraints on international rescue efforts, humanitarian groups said Wednesday.

"I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and help mitigate further loss of life, but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting position of the Burma military junta," said Adm. Timothy J. Keating, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Myanmar is also known as Burma.

He said the US had made "at least 15 attempts" to persuade the junta to allow the ships, which carry 22 medium and heavy helicopters, four landing craft and 5,000 sailors and Marines, to deliver aid directly to victims in Myanmar's most badly damaged areas.

The junta also refused help from French and British warships that broke off from scheduled missions to stand by off Myanmar.

However, US military C-130 transport planes are being allowed to fly in relief supplies to Yangon, the country's biggest city, from a temporary base in Thailand.

Myanmar, meanwhile, reportedly has been able to field only seven helicopters of its own.

Junta’s refusal means heavier aid burden for UN
Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said the junta's refusal to let military helicopters work in the country meant the UN had to charter large civilian aircraft, adding greatly to his agency's costs.

The WFP has budgeted $70 million for food and ground operations and nearly as much - $50 million - to charter the 10 helicopters, he said. It has received contributions of about $50 million toward the total, he added.

In previous large-scale disasters - such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan's 2005 earthquake - helicopters on loan from friendly nations' militaries were used to rush in emergency supplies, he said.

The isolationist regime is extremely suspicious of outsiders, particularly of the US and other Western nations that have criticised its harsh treatment of democracy advocates.

Along with other UN agencies and non-governmental agencies working on cyclone relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis that struck Burma May 2 and 3, the WFP said it was still trying to assess the needs of the victims.

More on Myanmar


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