Saving the children in Myanmar

Aid worker writes of the dangers facing the youngest victims of cyclone Nargis.

    Save the Children and other aid agencies are focusing on emergency assistance for children in remote areas in the Irrawady Delta in

    Myanmar [GALLO/GETTY]

    I have been in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, for two weeks but I have lost all track of time as the hours and days have become a hazy blur.

    My eyes are stinging due to a lack of sleep and the debilitating effect of the persistent humidity.

    My colleagues who have been responding to the humanitarian needs of the people since the cyclone hit on May 2 

    are beyond feeling exhausted – they are running on empty.

    But the aid workers here are motivated by the immense need on the ground and this is at the forefront of our concerns every day.

    Save the Children's relief teams are slowly getting aid into the eastern and western Irrawady Delta in southern Myanmar, the region worst hit by the cyclone.

    A few days ago a team of seven Burmese aid workers returned to Yangon after spending several days accessing remote villages by boat in the western delta with vital aid supplies.

    Scenes of horror

    My colleague looked visibly moved describing the scenes of horror that he found. He said entire villages along the delta were now empty of people. Survivors in some villages described in detail how the awesome power of Nargis had sucked in people and communities and spat them out into the rising waters of the delta. 

    They did not stand a chance. Another team of Burmese aid workers - the real unsung heroes of this disaster - are due to return from the delta tomorrow.

    The team has been delivering water, food, medicines, blankets and plastic sheeting to survivors.

    We are scaling up the aid operation as more aid supplies are purchased in the country and more aid arrives from outside the country.

    At present we have 260 Burmese aid workers working in the delta. Some international aid workers, including a health specialist and a logistician responsible for getting aid supplies into the affected areas, have been granted visas to work in the delta.

    It is very challenging getting aid into the worst affected areas as they can only be reached by boat and the heavy monsoon rain makes working conditions for us and living conditions for the survivors difficult. 

    Focusing on children

    Save the Children says that children account for
    40 per cent of Nargis fatalities [GETTY]

    Almost half of Myanmar's population are children and in the aftermath of Nargis, they make up some 40 per cent of the deaths. They also account for nearly half of the survivors.

    For Save the Children, it is these youngest victims that have been the focus of our work and as in most emergencies they are the most vulnerable.

    At the same time aid workers are gathering detailed information about the needs of children. We estimate that 30,000 children were acutely malnourished before the cyclone struck in the delta.

    We are distributing emergency food rations but we are also working out how we will meet the long-term needs of survivors. Our initial assessments tell us that at least 2000 children have become separated from their families – this could be because their parents have died or because they have temporarily lost them in the aftermath of the disaster.

    This makes children incredibly vulnerable and our child protection experts are in the field working out how we can set up systems to ensure that children remain safe.

    In the coming weeks aid workers will try and locate the parents and reunite them with their children. This is one of the happy endings that we are always hoping for.

    Save the Children is particularly concerned about reports of lower respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea and the high risk from malaria and dengue fever that make children particularly susceptible. We expect that pregnant women survivors are very vulnerable with poor access to safe deliveries and neonatal care.

    We have estimated that our response to cyclone Nargis will continue for at least three years.

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    As a foreigner I am confined to Yangon where I am supporting the work that my colleagues are carrying out in the field. It has been hard to get a feel in Yangon of how much devastation Nargis has wrought elsewhere in the country, but there are reminders everywhere with trees that were ripped out of the ground and overturned in the cities parks and advertising boards dangling off mounted frames.

    I have worked on in Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan and the 2006 war on Lebanon, but in all these areas I had the freedom to move around and work with aid teams on the ground.

    Here in Yangon I have been forced to adapt to working in a different method and it is humbling listening to the frontline aid workers as they come back from the field and update us on how Save the Children's response is developing.

    Unfortunately, in the midst of tragedy, enterprising locals have made some logistical planning for aid workers rather challenging. A local mobile phone sim card, which is extremely valuable for aid workers in the field comes, at a premium price - $3,000.

    Save the Children is a charity organisation working to improve the conditions of children around the world.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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