YANGON, Myanmar – International aid began to trickle into Myanmar on Tuesday, but the stricken Irrawaddy Delta, the country’s rice bowl where 22,000 people perished and twice as many are missing, remained cut off from the world.
In the former capital of Yangon, government soldiers were out on the streets in large numbers for the first time since cyclone Nargis hit over the weekend, helping to clear away rubble. Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns wielded axes and long knives to remove ancient, fallen trees that were once the city’s pride.
However, coastal areas of the delta worst hit by the high winds and tidal surges were out of reach for aid workers, isolated by flooding and road damage.
No Canadians are reported among the dead and injured. A Foreign Affairs Department spokesman in Ottawa said consular officials were attempting to contact all 57 Canadians known to be in Myanmar. Most were registered as being in the Yangon area.
Electricity remained cut for nearly all 6.5 million residents of Yangon, while water supply was restored in only a few areas. Some residents waited in lines for nine hours or more to buy gasoline to fuel generators and their cars. At one gas station in the Yangon suburb of Sanchaung, fistfights broke out, with weary residents hitting each other with sticks after someone tried to cut in line.
The UN’s World Food Program said international aid began to flow, with more than 700 tonnes of food getting through to the first of nearly one million people left homeless by the cyclone.
Concerns mounted over the lack of food, water and shelter in the delta region and adjacent Yangon, where nearly a quarter of Myanmar’s 57 million people live, as well as the spread of disease in a country with one of the world’s worst health systems.
“Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself,” said Caryl Stern, who heads the UN Children’s Fund in the United States.
Ottawa has set aside up to $2 million to provide urgent relief.
International Co-operation Minister Beverley Oda has said Canada is working closely with UN agencies, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations to determine how “Canada’s support can best meet the humanitarian needs of the people, once access is allowed by the Burmese government.”
After days of little military presence in the streets, soldiers were out Tuesday clearing massive felled trees with power saws and axes and using their bare hands to lift debris into trucks.
State television played up the effort, showing images of a government truck distributing water, though residents said they hadn’t seen any water trucks around the city. There were no images of the hundreds of monks helping the recovery effort.
The streets of Yangon were filled Tuesday with residents carrying buckets to bring water from monasteries or buy it from households with generators that could pump it from wells. The main plant of Dagon Ice Factory, a drinking water brand, turned people away, posting signs saying “no more.”
While residents of Yangon struggled to clear away the rubble, the Irrawaddy Delta was cut off.
Images on state television Tuesday showed mangled trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads as well as roofless houses ringed by water in the delta, a lacework of paddy fields and canals where the country’s rice crop is grown.
Based on a satellite map made available by the United Nations, the storm’s damage was concentrated over about a 30,000-square-kilometre area along the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Martaban coastlines – less than five per cent of the country, but home to nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
A C-130 military transport plane carrying government aid from neighbouring Thailand flew into Yangon, where an Associated Press reporter watched it unload rice, canned fish, water and dried noodles. The goods-the first overseas aid to arrive in the stricken country – were transferred to a helicopter, which Myanmar military officers said would ferry them to the most stricken areas.
The White House said Tuesday the United States would send more than $3 million to help cyclone victims, following an initial emergency contribution of $250,000.
President George W. Bush called on Myanmar’s military government to allow the United States to send in a disaster assessment team, which he said would allow for quicker and larger aid infusions.
Myanmar, which regularly accuses the United States of trying to subvert the regime, is unlikely to allow a U.S. military presence in its territory.
But reflecting the seriousness of the crisis, the government has appealed for foreign aid and also announced Tuesday that it is delaying a crucial constitutional referendum in the hardest-hit areas.
State radio said Saturday’s vote on a military-backed draft constitution would be delayed until May 24 in 40 of 45 townships in the Yangon area and seven in the wider delta.
Pro-democracy advocates, including the political party of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have denounced the constitution as a tool to perpetuate the military’s grip on power.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been under house arrest for almost 12 of the last 18 years, was made an honorary Canadian citizen on Monday.
Inadequate warnings about the approaching storm and the ineffectiveness of the government in its aftermath could sway angry voters to reject the charter.
State radio said most of the 22,464 dead, as well as the 41,000 missing, were in the densely populated Irriwaddy Delta, home to six million people. It said 671 were killed in the Yangon area. Brig.-Gen. Kyaw San, the information minister, said most fatalities were caused by tidal waves.
The death toll is the highest from a natural disaster in southeast Asia since the tsunami of December 2004 killed 229,866 people in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of southeast and south Asia.
The UN World Food Program offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to one million people homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.