John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has expressed caution over the prospects of greater humanitarian access to cyclone-affected Myanmar.
“We need to be cautious about this,” the senior official told IRIN on 21 May. “I don’t want to raise expectations that won’t necessarily be met,” he said, noting, however, there were some reasonable prospects.
“The scene is set to move in the directions we have spoken about, but we need to see that happening on the ground before we can be absolutely certain about it.”
His comments came within hours of the arrival of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Bangkok. Holmes will accompany Ban to Yangon, the former Myanmar capital, on 22 May in yet another diplomatic move by the world body to further international relief efforts.
Although aid is getting through, it is not getting in fast enough, say humanitarian agencies, as Myanmar’s military rulers continue to restrict international assistance, and particularly foreign aid workers, from entering the country.
Photo: Emmanuel Dunseath/IRIN
"The essential message was that we’re simply trying to conduct a normal humanitarian relief operation in a way we would do anywhere in the world. Purely humanitarian. It’s got nothing to do with politics."
John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
More than 100,000 people are now feared dead and millions badly affected after the category four storm slammed into Myanmar’s low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta and Yangon on 2 and 3 May.
The official death toll stands at 80,000, with 56,000 still reported missing. Nargis is the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 138,000 people were killed in Bangladesh.
More effective response
Holmes travelled to Myanmar on 18 May when he toured the Ayeyarwady Delta before meeting senior government officials, including the prime minister, General Thein Sein, to discuss implementing a more effective humanitarian response.
“The essential message was that we’re simply trying to conduct a normal humanitarian relief operation in a way we would do anywhere in the world. Purely humanitarian,” Holmes stressed. “It’s got nothing to do with politics.
“Essentially we just want to help more. We recognise this was a major catastrophe well beyond the capacity of any country to deal with. They have welcomed international aid, but have not always made it easy for us to give it in the way that we would like to do,” he explained.
The UN is pressing for greater usage of international assistance to supplement Myanmar’s own efforts, as well as lifting restrictions on aid workers entering the affected areas.
The need is “to allow the real experts, the experienced people who have been through these kinds of disasters before, to go and do what they do best on the ground and to use their particular expertise – whether it be in setting up water treatment plants or organising food distribution pipelines”, Holmes said.
“Those are things that require a certain degree of experience and expertise which is not naturally available to Myanmar, which hasn’t had a disaster of this size in living memory,” he said.
Reuters video short on the UN's
Commenting on the relief effort, Holmes said: “There is clearly a significant relief operation under way already and we are reaching - both through their national effort and international efforts - more and more people. But we’re still a long way away from doing the kind of thing that we want to be doing and reaching everyone in need,” he said.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), of the 2.4 million affected by Nargis, 1.4 million are in the severely affected Ayeyarwady Delta, while another 680,000 are in Yangon Division.
Only 500,000 of those affected have received some form of international assistance thus far, the UN says. Various reports confirm these estimated figures, although assessments of all affected areas have not been possible, according to OCHA.