KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Customs inspections at Kathmandu airport are holding up vital relief supplies for earthquake survivors in Nepal, a U.N. official said on Saturday, as the death toll from the disaster a week ago passed 6,600.
United Nations Resident Representative Jamie McGoldrick said the government must loosen its normal customs restrictions to deal with the increasing flow of relief material now pouring in from abroad and piling up at the airport.
But the government, complaining it has received such unneeded supplies as tuna and mayonnaise, insisted its customs agents had to check all emergency shipments.
U.S. military aircraft and personnel due to arrive on Saturday to help ferry relief supplies to stricken areas outside the capital were delayed and tentatively scheduled to arrive on Sunday, a U.S. Marines spokeswoman said.
“They should not be using peacetime customs methodology,” the U.N.’s McGoldrick said. Instead, he argued, all relief material should get a blanket exemption from checks on arrival.
Nepal lifted import taxes on tarpaulins and tents on Friday but a home ministry spokesman, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, said all goods coming in from overseas had to be inspected. “This is something we need to do,” he said.
Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat appealed on Friday to international donors to send tents, tarpaulins and basic food supplies and said some of the items received were of no use.
“We have received things like tuna fish and mayonnaise. What good are those things for us? We need grains, salt and sugar,” he told reporters.
Some survivors held a candle-light ceremony in Kathmandu on Saturday to mark the passing of one week since the disaster, many of them breaking down in tears as they prayed.
Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy said the delayed U.S. contingent included at least 100 U.S. soldiers, lifting equipment and six military aircraft, two of them helicopters.
He also warned against bottlenecks at Kathmandu airport, saying: “What you don’t want to do is build up a mountain of supplies” that block space for planes or more supplies.
Nepali government officials have said efforts to step up the pace of delivery of relief material to remote areas were also frustrated by a shortage of supply trucks and drivers, many of whom had returned to their villages to help their families.
“Our granaries are full and we have ample food stock, but we are not able to transport supplies at a faster pace,” said Shrimani Raj Khanal, a manager at the Nepal Food Corp.
Army helicopters have air-dropped instant noodles and biscuits to remote communities but people need rice and other ingredients to cook a proper meal, he said.
The government said the death toll from last Saturday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake had reached 6,655 and that more than 14,000 people were injured.
In Kathmandu, teams with sniffer dogs slowly searched through ruined buildings for bodies still buried in the rubble. Elsewhere, volunteers stacked up bricks recovered from the debris to begin the slow process of reconstruction.
Some agencies are beginning to look for demolition crews capable of bringing down thousands of dangerous buildings.
Many Nepalis have been sleeping in the open since the quake, with survivors afraid to return to their homes because of powerful aftershocks. Tents have been pitched in Kathmandu’s main sports stadium and on its golf course.
According to the United Nations, 600,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged.
The United Nations said 8 million of Nepal’s 28 million people were affected, with at least 2 million needing tents, water, food and medicines over the next three months.
The top priorities now are getting aid and shelter to people before the monsoon season starts within weeks and adds to the difficulty in distributing relief supplies, World Food Programme executive director Ertharin Cousin told Reuters.
“Our fear is the monsoon will come early,” she said.
Disease is also a worry. “Hospitals are overflowing, water is scarce, bodies are still buried under the rubble and people are still sleeping in the open,” Rownak Khan, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Nepal, said in a statement.
“This is a perfect breeding ground for diseases.”
Additional reporting by Ross Adkin; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Tom Heneghan