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May-15-2008 11:20printcomments

UN`s Humanitarian Chief Will Head to Myanmar

UN agencies have mounted a major effort to ferry in relief supplies.

Villagers use bleaching powder to purify contaminated pond water in Myanmar's Kawhmu Township
Villagers use bleaching powder to purify contaminated pond water in Myanmar's Kawhmu Township. Photo: United Nations

(GENEVA) - The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said he is planning to send the organization’s highest ranking aid official to Myanmar, to boost efforts to tackle the crisis caused by Cyclone Nargis which swept through the country at the beginning of the month.

Mr. Ban said there was “a sense of great urgency,” and that much more needed to be done in Myanmar. “The first few days, even a few more hours, will be crucially important in reaching these needy people with the necessary relief items and humanitarian goods,” he said, speaking to reporters in New York yesterday. He said that he is considering sending Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes to Myanmar in the coming days.

Mr. Ban was speaking following his meeting with members of ASEAN, the Association of South-east Asian Nations, on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. He said that they discussed appointing a joint UN/ASEAN humanitarian coordinator, as well as establishing a regional hub for aid supplies outside Myanmar and also holding a high-level pledging conference.

The Secretary-General said that he had assured ASEAN members that the question of aid for Myanmar would not be politicized and that he would lead the effort in “a purely, genuinely humanitarian” way. He added that he was encouraged that the Government of Myanmar had shown flexibility.

About 2.5 million people are estimated to have been severely affected by the cyclone since it struck on 2 May, with the Irrawaddy delta area among the hardest-hit areas. The UN says the death toll could rise as high as 100,000 or even higher. More than half a million people are reported to have gathered in improvised camps scattered across the delta region.

UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have mounted a major effort to ferry in relief supplies, including tarpaulins and plastic sheeting, water purification tablets and water treatment equipment, rice, high energy biscuits and beans, as well as emergency health kits reaching at least 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that the depletion of mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy delta area could have contributed to the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis. The mangrove area in the delta is now less than half the size it was in 1975.

The FAO said that intact and dense coastal vegetation can reduce the impacts of waves and currents associated with a storm surge and said that lessons learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami suggest that much can be done to improve the sustainability of mangrove forests along coastal areas.

In recent years mangroves have been converted into agricultural land and fish ponds, and settlements have been established closer to the sea in the Irrawaddy delta area.

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