Hundreds of thousands needed to assist cyclone-hit Myanmar - UN
New York - The number of people requiring humanitarian assistance following the deadly cyclone which struck Myanmar a few days ago could number in the hundreds of thousands, according to the United Nations which is mobilising aid in the wake of the disaster.
Cyclone Nargis, which swept through Irrawaddy delta region on Friday, left thousands of people dead in its wake and hundreds of thousands without shelter.
With winds of over 190 kilometres per hour, the storm, which hit Yangon later that same night, tore down trees and power lines and caused widespread flooding.
Myanmar authorities have declared five regions - Yangon, Ayeyarwwady, Bago, Mon and Kayin disaster areas.
The population of the declared disaster areas is estimated at 24 million, with an estimated six million in Yangon.
More than 3 000 people are reportedly missing in Ayeyarwady Division alone.
"Unfortunately, we cannot tell you how many people are in need of assistance," Rashid Khalikov, Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York, told reporters. "But it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands."
Mr Khalikov said the Myanmar Government has said it will receive international aid, and that assistance is "ready to go in."
He hoped the Government will ease visa regulations in order to speed up the delivery of vital relief supplies, stressing that "this is a critical moment for the affected populations."
In addition, he appealed to the international community to support the relief effort that is unfolding, and added that the UN Country Team in Myanmar is drafting a flash appeal to be launched later this week.
There are over 1 650 UN personnel - of whom 79 are international staff - on the ground in the South-East Asian nation.
OCHA announced that it is prepared to release $5 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund to kick-start an emergency response.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has written to Senior General Than Shwe, expressing his condolences, UN spokesperson Marie Okabe told reporters on Tuesday.
Mr Ban noted that the lack of communications has made it difficult to ascertain the extent of the casualties and damage, but stressed that the UN is prepared extend necessary assistance and to mobilise international aid in support of the Government.
General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim has also expressed his solidarity with the people of Myanmar in dealing with the aftermath of the cyclone.
While addressing a UN-private sector event in London, Mr Kerim called on the authorities in Myanmar to fully cooperate with the international community and the UN so that much needed emergency assistance could be deployed as effectively as possible.
A five-member UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team is now standing by in the region and is awaiting the required visas to travel to Myanmar to coordinate relief efforts together with the national authorities.
Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) on Tuesday began distributing food in cyclone-damaged areas of Yangon.
The agency has taken initial steps to meet the enormous logistics challenge of bringing in disaster relief supplies, equipment and prepared foods urgently needed by people in badly-hit areas.
WFP now has more than 800 metric tons of food stocks available in its warehouses in Yangon, and will deliver these food resources to all areas in need, including the Ayeryawaddy Division, the largest and hardest hit of the five major divisions affected by the cyclone.
WFP's $500,000 initial emergency operation will fund the airlifts of food supplies and emergency staff deployments.
The UN refugee agency, for its part, is emptying its emergency shelter material stockpiles in neighbouring Thailand of plastic sheeting and tents for some 10 000 people for urgent dispatch to Yangon.
The supplies would be distributed through a Disaster Management Committee that had been established by the Myanmar Government.
Jennifer Pagonis, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told journalists in Geneva that the agency's office in Myanmar yesterday purchased $50 000 worth of urgently needed basic supplies in Yangon for distribution, including emergency tarpaulins, plastic sheeting and canned food.
In addition, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has dispatched teams to make initial assessments in Yangon, Pathein and Bago, and is positioning relief supplies.
The agency says it will work with partners and the Government to provide access to clean water, safe sanitation and improved hygiene, and will seek to protect children and help them return to school as soon as possible.
UNICEF's Myanmar field staff have started delivering urgently-need supplies to the Irrawaddy delta, and has provided medicines, first-aid kits and oral rehydration tablets to Laputta township, one of the most severely impacted areas.
In the wake of the deadly storm, the head of the secretariat of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction on Tuesday stressed the importance of having life-saving early warning systems and preparedness programmes in place when cyclones strike.
Sálvano Briceño noted that many cyclone-prone countries, such as Cuba, Japan, and Bangladesh, have implemented efficient early warning systems that have reduced the death toll caused by cyclones.
"When there are comprehensive early warning systems in place, starting from meteorological technology all the way through to preparedness and contingency plans, people can be effectively warned and have time to evacuate to safer places," he said.