U.N. officials expressed hope Monday they will soon be able to get help to more than 1 million cyclone survivors still waiting for food and shelter, if Myanmar's ruling junta keeps its promise to let foreign aid workers into the country.
More than three weeks after the storm, people huddled along roadsides, desperate for any sort of handout. The U.N. estimated less than half the 2.4 million people victimized by the May 2-3 storm had received emergency assistance.
In Pyapon, a coastal township southwest of Yangon, hundreds of makeshift huts had been thrown up along a road. Women and children squatted outside, the children begging for food, their arms outstretched as vehicles pass.
The area can be reached fairly easily, but the survivors said they had not received any aid from Myanmar's military government and were surviving on donations from private citizens and Buddhist monks.
"I have no hope that the help will come," said Aye Shwe, a 52-year-old farmer who has been living with his family of eight in a hut that he built with scrounged bamboo and thatch.
For sustenance the family has had to rely on private donors who deliver rice and potatoes with trucks.
"We live from hand to mouth," Aye Shwe said. "We have no buffaloes, no paddy fields."
Myanmar authorities have been driving up and down the road since last week telling people by loudspeaker to go home. But Aye Shwe said the land on which his house stands, in a nearby paddy field, remained waist deep in water.
Experts needed in devastated areas
Richard Horsey, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian operation in Bangkok, Thailand, told The Associated Press that assistance could start flowing to those who need it most in the next few days if the junta quickly allows foreign experts into devastated areas.
The isolationist government has barred nearly all foreign aid workers and international relief agencies from the hard-hit Irrawaddy River delta since Cyclone Nargis hit.
Referring to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's announcement Friday that the junta's leader agreed to let international aid workers into hard-hit areas, Horsey said: "It is critical that that gets translated to practical access on the ground. The signs so far are good."
International aid groups were starting to move out to being operating in those areas, he said, "but of course it's very early and we must make sure that this continues."
Horsey said that if the agencies can quickly scale up their operations, "in the coming days we can start to reach all of those that need to be reached."
The international Red Cross said Monday at least 1.5 million people, many of them hungry and ailing, remained homeless in the rain-swept, low-lying delta. Official government estimates put the death toll at about 78,000, with an additional 56,000 people missing.
"It remains a race against the clock and the logistical challenges grow with the rain. What reaches the cyclone-devastated areas can't get there fast enough, and what does get through is not enough," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
Funding contingent on access
Ban's mission to open Myanmar's doors to more assistance climaxed Sunday when donor nations offered more than $100 million to help the country recover. But donor nations warned they would not fully open their wallets until given access to the worst damaged areas.
The granting of visas to foreign aid workers had been accelerating in the past week. But the process hit a snag Monday when the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok — the main gateway to Myanmar — had to close its visa section for a few hours after a fire in the main building.
Myanmar's leaders are leery of foreign aid workers and international agencies because they fear an influx of outsiders could undermine control. The junta is also hesitant to have its people see aid coming directly from countries like the U.S., which it has long treated as a hostile power seeking to invade or colonize.
After Sunday's donors meeting, Ban said the international relief operation would last at least six months.
Myanmar's government has estimated the economic damage at about $11 billion, and the United Nations has launched an emergency appeal for $201 million.