July 31, 2008 / 9:01 AM / 11 years ago

Cyclone-hit Myanmar struggling to find its feet

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Three months after Cyclone Nargis slammed into army-run Myanmar, people in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta are still in dire need of food and clean water, hampering efforts to rebuild their lives, aid agencies say.

A village, hit by Cyclone Nargis, in the Irrawaddy delta region of Myanmar is seen in this picture taken June 5, 2008. REUTERS/GMI/Handout

According to a joint assessment by the United Nations, Myanmar and Southeast Asian governments, three quarters of households have inadequate access to clean drinking water, making water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery a constant threat.

In addition, more than 40 percent have little or nothing by way of food, having lost their stocks in the May 2 storm and the sea surge that smashed into the delta, leaving 138,000 people dead or missing.

Another 800,000 were displaced in a disaster that the U.N. says affected 2.4 million people in the former Burma, where most people rely on farming for a living.

“The window of opportunity for planning crops has now closed. Farmers will have to wait until November 2009 for their next decent harvest and will struggle to find enough food,” leading charity Save The Children said.

While UN children’s agency UNICEF said malnutrition was not yet a cause for concern, Save The Children said that if food and employment needs were not addressed, the number of malnourished youngsters could rise to emergency levels.

Fears of funding shortages have been compounded by recent revelations that aid agencies are losing money due to Myanmar’s distorted official exchange rate. The United Nations admitted this week it had lost $10 million so far.

WORST ASIAN CYCLONE SINCE 1991

The cyclone, the worst to hit Asia since 1991 when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh, has been compared to the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which 230,000 people were killed. Around 170,000 of these were in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

However, unlike the tsunami, the aid effort has been plagued from the start by a lack of access for aid workers and donors.

The military junta only admitted international relief workers grudgingly and three weeks after the cyclone hit following talks between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and army supremo Senior General Than Shwe.

It rejected offers of help from French and U.S. ships.

Access has improved slightly over time, although aid workers say travel permits for the delta still take four days to approve.

However, with the closure of a U.N. “air bridge” between Bangkok and Yangon on August 10, aid agencies will have to rely on slower sea and land routes to transport supplies.

Funding remains a major problem, with the U.N.’s World Food Program saying it is facing a shortfall of about 52 per cent, despite recent donations from the UK and Australia amounting to $16 million.

According to Save The Children, people affected by the tsunami received an equivalent of $1,249 in aid. By comparison, the victims of Nargis have so far received $213 so far.

Even before Nargus struck, life in the delta was tough, with a minimum healthy diet for an average family of five costing $1.15 a day compared to an average daily wage of

Reporting by Bangkok newsroom, Editing by Ed Cropley and Sanjeev Miglani

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