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'A nightmare to make this operation run'

Many obstacles are keeping relief workers from reaching most of the people who are without food or safe drinking water in cyclone-devastated Myanmar, organizers said Friday.
Local aid workers deliver bottled water at the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, on Friday. International relief workers say the lack of a more modern transportation system, and government obstacles, have slowed the flow of aid.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

No helicopters. Almost no boats. Floods and fallen trees on the roads.

Many obstacles are keeping relief workers from reaching most of the hundreds of thousands of people who are without food or safe drinking water in cyclone-devastated Myanmar, organizers said Friday. U.N. health officials warned of a growing risk of waterborne diseases.

Six days after the storm, the combined effort of relief agencies and Myanmar's government had delivered aid to only 220,000 of an estimated 1.9 million people in need, the Red Cross said Friday.

"We are simply lacking transportation. There are almost no boats and no helicopters. This is really a nightmare to make this operation run," said Anders Ladekarl, secretary-general of the Danish Red Cross, in a satellite telephone interview from Myanmar to Danish broadcaster DR.

Myanmar has only a few dozen helicopters and most are small and old, according to "The Military Balance 2008," a widely recognized assessment on armaments around the world. The country also has about 15 transport planes but most are small jets not able to carry hundreds of tons of supplies, said Andrew Brookes, an aerospace specialist at the IISS, an independent think tank.

As aid agencies awaited government clearance for more aid shipments, staff and transport, the U.N. said Myanmar's government seized two planeloads of food and supplies and would not let its experts into the country.

The government said it had taken control of the supplies to distribute them itself.

The U.N. always requires experienced aid workers to accompany relief supplies in every recipient country until they are delivered, officials said.

"Those are the rules," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We have to be accountable to our donors in the states that paid for this assistance and we have to be transparent. We have to be sure the aid is reaching the victims."

Many relief agencies, including the Red Cross, were able to get a quick start on the operation because they already had operations in the country. But they have run into problems with slow government approval of new aid shipments and refusal to admit additional staff.

'Only one little plane' at airport
Governments have sent their own planeloads of aid, but there was little sign of the shipments, Ladekarl said Friday after his arrival in Yangon, the country's largest city.

"I got through an airport that normally would be full of emergency relief planes and a lot of relief. There was only one little plane," said Ladekarl, who already had a visa to visit Myanmar before the storm hit.

Even as they sought to persuade the military junta to open up for more assistance, governments have increased the amounts they are donating. But the amount brought in so far is far short of the needs, officials said.

"We've seen the scale of the destruction and the suffering is huge," said Hugues Robert, head of Medecins Sans Frontieres emergency operations in Geneva. "But we will not be able to address these urgent needs without the necessary additional supplies and the arrival of more experienced emergency staff, particularly experts in water and sanitation."

MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, had 40 foreign workers and 1,000 local volunteers in Myanmar before the cyclone, and they have all been redeployed to help in the recovery effort with the permission of national authorities, said Fred Baldini in the organization's Geneva office.

"There has been no problem," he said. But MSF has not received visas for additional aid workers to arrive from abroad.

CARE had supplies already there
Carsten Voelz, Geneva-based operations manager for CARE International, said his agency was using supplies it already had in Myanmar and was planning to bring in more, but had yet to request permission from the government to receive a shipment.

"It's going OK for us because we are basically working in the areas where we working before the disaster," Voelz told The Associated Press. "So we have established relationships, communities know us, so we have access to those places."

He said that CARE on Thursday distributed water to 10,000 people and food to 15,000 and has started distribution of 50,000 "family kits" containing cooking supplies and other essentials.

If allowed to expand, Voelz said, "we will need to scale up significantly in country and hire a lot more Burmese staff."

James East, a Bangkok-based spokesman for World Vision, said his agency has been distributing water, rice, clothing and other supplies in the Yangon area.

"We've got tents, tarpaulins, water, sanitation kits, pills, there are some medicines, water-purification units — that kind of basic stuff you need when you've lost everything," East said.