Wednesday, 4 June 2008

UN: Burma Aid Costs Soar as Junta Plays Hard Ball

The Irrawaddy News

The ruling junta's refusal to permit the use of military helicopters even from friendly neighboring countries is hampering aid to Burma's cyclone survivors and dramatically increasing costs, a United Nations report said.

More survivors of the disaster are now receiving some assistance, although in many cases it doesn't meet essential needs, the UN said in a report circulated Tuesday.

A total of 1.3 million survivors have been reached with assistance by local and international humanitarian groups, the Red Cross and the UN, said the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in a situation report dated June 2.

It said that in Burma's Irrawaddy delta, the area hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis, the proportion of people reached with assistance had increased to 49 percent from 23 percent on May 25.

However, the report warned that "There remains a serious lack of sufficient and sustained humanitarian assistance for the affected populations."

"This is compounded by the lack of a clear knowledge of the locations, numbers of families, and level of assistance required, as well as a clear understanding of the support being provided by the Government of Myanmar [Burma] to its people."

The UN has estimated that 2.4 million people are in need of food, shelter or medical care as a result of the storm, which the government said killed 78,000 people and left another 56,000 missing.

The junta had promised UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that foreign relief workers would be allowed into areas worst affected by the storm in the Irrawaddy delta after they were initially barred.

The UN's World Food Program warned Tuesday that its effort to supply food to the storm's victims, while satisfactory, is facing escalating costs.

Paul Risley, a spokesman for the agency in Bangkok, Thailand, said it is currently able to supply survivors with rice obtained inside Burma, and has about six week's supply on hand, considered a reasonable safety net.

WFP appealed to the international community for US $70 million to fund its operations in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, but was facing a 64 percent shortfall of that target, Risley said.

He warned that logistical aspects of the operations, such as the chartering of helicopters, are causing expenses to soar.

In previous large scale disasters—such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan's 2005 earthquake—military helicopters are used to meet the massive immediate emergency requirements, he said. Thailand and Singapore have many such aircraft on hand, he said.

"For political reasons, the Myanmar government was reluctant to approve their use," Risley said. Burma was reportedly able to field only seven helicopters of its own.

After UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon won Burma's agreement to allow in helicopters to work for WFP, the UN agency was compelled to charter 10 privately owned military-grade helicopters: one from nearby Malaysia, and the others from Ukraine, Uganda and South Africa.

The helicopters had to be shipped to Bangkok aboard huge cargo planes. The Canadian government arranged commercially chartered flights to have four helicopters hauled from Ukraine, and an Australian air force plane transported two from South Africa. But a Russian plane had to be chartered to carry the three others from Uganda, at a cost of "roughly US$1 million," said Risley.

WFP must also pay for each hour the helicopters are used, plus associated costs for pilots and ground crew, meaning "expenses can rise very rapidly," he said.

Only one helicopter has arrived in Burma so far, and it flew its first flight there from Rangoon to the Irrawaddy delta town of Laputta on Monday, carrying half a ton of high-energy biscuits.

The other nine are in Thailand and "ready to fly," Risley said, adding that WFP hopes they could be transferred to Burma by the end of the week.

Because of the costs of the helicopters and other equipment WFP needs to hire—such as boats and barges for river transport inside Burma—"expenses will probably go higher than estimated," he said.

No comments: