May 12, 2008 / 3:49 PM / 10 years ago

Tsunami-style aid effort awaits Myanmar green light

By Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK, May 12 (Reuters) - The ships, aircraft, money and people are slowly getting into place for a ‘tsunami-style’ international aid operation for cyclone-ravaged Myanmar.

Now all they need is government permission.

While aid trickles into the former Burma 10 days after Cyclone Nargis, relief agencies say the storm’s 1.5 million survivors in the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta are getting only a fraction of the food, water and medicines they need.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said it only had 10 percent of the staff and equipment it needed inside the army-ruled country.

"We think we need to be moving 375 tonnes of food a day down into the affected areas. We are doing less than 20 percent of that," WFP spokesman Marcus Prior told a news conference.

The agency, which is flying food aid into the former capital Yangon and using local staff to distribute it, was "essentially operating by remote control", he said.

"It puts enormous pressure on the staff that we do have in the field. Although it is do-able, it’s not sustainable and it’s not do-able on the scale that is necessary," Prior said.

The military, which has ruled for 46 years, has welcomed "aid from any nation" but has made it very clear it does not want an influx of foreign experts or equipment distributing it.

The reclusive regime is not granting visas for foreign logistics teams needed to ramp up the relief effort and avoid a second wave of deaths due to hunger and disease.

"Aid is being delivered daily by boat, helicopters and trucks," Soe Tha, Minister for National Planning and Economic Development, told foreign diplomats in Yangon on Sunday.

Seven military helicopters are running an air bridge from Yangon west to Pathein, a staging area for the government relief effort. The regime is also using small boats and two larger ships to deliver aid, U.N. officials say.

Myanmar’s air force has 66 helicopters, ranging from French-made Alouettes and U.S.-built Bells to Russian Mi-17s, and more than a dozen fixed-wing transport planes, experts say. Little is known about their airworthiness or maintenance.

The United Nations has called for nearly $50 million in logistical support as part of a wider appeal for $187 million in aid for Myanmar.

"We need air assets, boat and road transportation made available, as well as warehousing. We need a tracking system and the staff to run this operation," Terje Skavdal, head of the U.N. humanitarian affairs office, told reporters.

In past disasters, they were up and running in 3-4 days.

"The fact that we are on day 10 now shows how delayed we are in the response," he said.


Nargis is Asia’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami, which triggered a massive international relief effort led by the U.S. deployment of thousands of military personnel and more than a dozen ships in the Indian Ocean.

Five days after the killer waves struck Indonesia, where more than half of the 230,000 tsunami victims died, helicopters from the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln began ferrying aid from the clogged airport at Banda Aceh.

Joined by aircraft from other Western nations, they formed the backbone of supply lines to remote villages and helped stave off a second wave of deaths.

By comparison, the United States, which calls Myanmar an "outpost of tyranny", sent its first C-130 transport plane loaded with blankets, water and mosquito nets into Yangon on Monday.

The U.S. has 4,000 marines in the immediate region, as well as 3 ships due near the Myanmar coast in the next 36-48 hours. A French naval ship is also on standby.

"We will take it one day at a time," U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Henrietta Fore said after returning to Bangkok. Two more flights were planned on Tuesday. (Additional reporting by Ed Cropley; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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