Rain threatens Myanmar survivors

Red Cross estimates toll up to 128,000 and says heavy rain could stop aid completely.

    Up to 12cm of rain is forecast for cyclone-hit areas over the next six days [AFP]

    Survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar are facing a new threat from heavy rains that could cut off aid completely, forecasters and aid agencies have said.


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    The warning comes as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated the toll from the cyclone to be between 68,833 and 127,990, far more than the government's revised toll of 38,491 dead and 27,838 missing.


    The United Nations also increased the number of people severely affected by the cyclone on Wednesday, saying up to 2.5 million people urgently need water, food and shelter.


    Earlier fears that a fresh cyclone could hit the disaster area have abated.


    But with the weather system expected to dump up to 12cm of rain on the region over the next six days the Red Cross has said that already struggling aid deliveries could halt altogether.


    The heavy rains are also raising the risk of flooding on areas of dry land where cyclone survivors have taken refuge.


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    On Wednesday the UN continued to push Myanmar's military government to expedite the entry of aid into the country, with Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general despatching his top humanitarian official to Yangon in the next few days.


    John Holmes, the UN's under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, will hope to persuade Myanmar's ruling military to open up to a full-scale relief effort.


    The decision to send Holmes to Myanmar was announced at the end of a special meeting convened at the UN headquarters in New York to find ways of getting aid into Myanmar more quickly.


    Speaking after the meeting Ban said diplomats were "encouraged" by the increasing flow of aid to Myanmar but urged its rulers to be "fully co-operative" in providing access.


    Holmes urged Myanmar's rulers to make a "radical change" and allow in foreign aid workers to avoid a second wave of cyclone deaths, saying access was "the biggest problem we have at the moment".


    And Louis Michel, the EU's humanitarian aid commissioner, said there was now a risk of famine, adding: "If there is a lack of access, more people will die."


    However, Samak Sundaravej, Thailand's prime minister, said after a brief visit to Myanmar on Wednesday that the government had again ruled out allowing in foreign experts to help the relief effort.


    "They insisted they can take care of their people and their country. They can manage by themselves," he said.


    But the head of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), of which Myanmar and Thailand are members, said the military government had agreed to issue visas to one of its rapid assessment teams and Asean would take more of a lead in aid efforts.


    'Don't write us off'


    The UN says 2.5 million people need food,
    water and shelter [AFP]
    "There is a consensus emerging now that Asean has to take the lead and Asean has risen to the occasion," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the 10-member group, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday.


    The regional body has come under fire for failing to respond swiftly to the crisis.


    Surin said he understood growing frustration at its slow response but added: "Don't just write us off yet."


    He said many outsiders were "very anxious, very angry and very frustrated, and you have the right to be. But Asean needs encouragement. Asean needs less of the criticism … less of the ridicule."


    "We are trying to work around a very, very strict resistance and mentality and mind-set that have been there for a long, long time," he said.


    The group is due to meet on Monday in Singapore to discuss help for Myanmar. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has said he is appointing an official to liaise with Asean on aid efforts.


    Tonnes of international aid is flowing in to Myanmar but aid groups warn a lack of infrastructure and heavy equipment means not nearly enough is reaching the southern Irrawaddy delta.


    Much of the aid that has been cleared to land is reportedly still at Yangon airport.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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