Jemilah Mahmood: "Worse than the tsunami"

'Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, an obstetrics-gynaecologist, established MERCY Malaysia in June 1999'

Jemilah Mahmood, an obstetrician and member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team - and one of the first international aid workers to access Myanmar's cyclone-devastated Ayeyarwady Delta - is no stranger to disasters.

After her 12-day visit to the country, the veteran aid worker shared with IRIN her assessment of the situation.

"Arriving in Yangon, you don't really see the full extent of the destruction. Of course there are damaged buildings and uprooted trees, but it's not until you reach the delta that you see the true scale of the disaster.

"Flying over the affected area, I couldn't help but think this is worse than the 2004 Asian tsunami; so many deaths and displacement over such a large area. The flood surge was certainly much wider - up to 35km in some areas compared with 5km or 6km in the tsunami.

"But a lot of the areas I could visit in the delta, including Labutta and Mawlamyinegyun townships, were obviously not the worst.

"Although hospitals were badly affected, the hospitals I visited in both areas were up and running.

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"We are definitely used to hardship"

"Both Labutta and Mawlamyinegyun were badly hit and you could see a lot of damaged homes and displaced people in camps, but the worst affected areas were farther south.

"It's here in the rural and more isolated parts of the delta - much of which remains inaccessible - that the real challenge lies."

Makeshift homes

"International assistance is still just reaching a small percentage of the affected population and that's not good enough.

"At this point, shelter is the primary need. The rains have already started and soon the monsoon will begin. People are still living in tents, while others are in makeshift homes or taking refuge in schools.

"And with schools reopening in June, there is of course a lot of pressure for them to find alternative places to stay.

"Added to this are issues of access to clean drinking water, sanitation, food and healthcare, coupled with pressure on local communities to get back to their farms and begin replanting.

"Once the monsoon hits, it will be hard to replant. That could mean no crop for the next season. In fact, there is a fear that there will be no harvest should they fail to replant in time."


"Access to the cyclone-affected area remains a challenge, but it's improving. More and more NGOs are getting visas to Yangon at least, as are a number of UN staff.

"Given that reality, I cannot underestimate the importance of building partnerships with local communities and organisations on the ground, many of whom are having a real impact.

Reuters video short on mammoth
aid task in Myanmar

Watch larger version of video

"Relief is reaching people through these local channels. Additionally, although we can't deny that the government is involved, there is great need for more information and transparency.

"What's important is finding which of these different channels to deliver aid is working and use them.

"Critically we need to ensure there is a clear logistics pipeline where assistance can be channelled to the people. It's happening, but we need to make it more regular.

"This is why we need more flights coming in and more boats.

"People need more relief, more shelter, as well as more food and water. Although it's increased tremendously over the past few weeks, we need to do much more.

"One of the more frustrating things about this particular disaster is that the humanitarian aspect of what we are trying to do is so often being blurred. We need to have both the government and aid community looking at things purely through the humanitarian lens.

"Not doing so has resulted in a huge information gap that we cannot afford.

"I feel the media has been very one-sided in reporting on what is being done. At the same time, I wish there was more openness on the part of the government to share with the media what they are doing.

"This would allow us all to be very clear where the gaps are. It would also reduce the need to keep pointing out what the government hadn't done, but rather highlight what they had and what the additional needs were.

"Any assistance is good assistance at this point and the sooner we get it in the better."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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