A rare bird's-eye look at Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta shows the devastation still left from Cyclone Nargis — broken levies, flooded farm roads, the shattered remains of bamboo huts and trees strewn like matchsticks along the coast.
Conditions are far starker than reflected in the assessments from Myanmar's government and even in the recent optimism of some U.N. officials, The Associated Press has concluded from a review of data, a private flight over the delta and interviews with victims and aid workers.
Three months after a disaster that claimed nearly 140,000 lives, thousands of villagers are still getting little or nothing from their government or foreign aid groups.
"We lost everything — our house, our rice, our clothes. We were given just a little rice by a private aid group from Yangon. I don't know where the government or foreign organizations are helping people, but not here," said Khin Maung Kyi, a 60-year-old farmer who lost six children to the killer storm.
Some areas have received help in the delta, Myanmar's rice bowl set amid a lacework of waterways. During a fly-over, brand-new metal roofs atop reconstructed homes glittered in the tropical sunlight, farmers in cone-shaped hats worked in green rice paddies, and gangs of workers struggled to remove debris from canals and repair broken embankments.
The progress is slow and behind where it should be.
"The situation in Myanmar remains dire," said Chris Kaye, who heads relief operations for the U.N. World Food Program. "The vast majority of families simply don't have enough to eat."
Some grim recent statistics from foreign aid agencies working in the delta:
- A survey of families in 291 villages showed that 55 percent have less than one day of food left and no stocks to fall back on. Some 924,000 people will need food assistance until the November rice harvest, while around 300,000 will need relief until April 2009.
- The fishing industry, the delta's second-most-important source of income and food, remains devastated. More than 40 percent of fishing boats and 70 percent of fishing gear were destroyed and very little has been replaced.
- More than 360,000 children will not be able to go to elementary school in coming months because at least 2,000 schools were so badly damaged they cannot reopen anytime soon.
"The vast majority of people have received some assistance. But very few people have received enough assistance to get them through the next three months, and almost no one has received enough assistance to enable them to rebuild their lives," said Andrew Kirkwood, who heads the aid agency Save the Children in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Better than anticipated?
Kirkwood said three months after such a disaster, aid agencies would normally be rebuilding schools, health clinics and other facilities. But in Myanmar, he said, the first phase of emergency distribution of food and basics is likely to continue for another three months.
More upbeat assessments have come from other quarters. Some have noted that a second wave of death from disease and starvation anticipated by some relief agencies never occurred.
"It has gone much better than anyone expected," said Ashley Clements, a spokesman for World Vision, an international Christian relief and development agency, citing the resilience of the victims and the speed of the aid response.
"The message I want the world to know is that the government, U.N. agencies and other organizations ... are making good progress," said Ramesh Shrestha, a U.N. representative in Yangon.
However, almost at the same time the U.N.'s humanitarian news service, IRIN, published a report about conditions in the delta titled "Life is totally bleak." Chronicling the plight of several families, it noted that many people lack food and shelter.
'A fine balance'
Some foreign aid workers caution that their agencies refrain from exposing problems for fear the government will curb or halt their access to victims.
"Our operations are contingent on having a positive relationship with the government," said Kaye, the U.N. World Food Program chief in Myanmar. "So we have to work out a fine balance, so that the difficult issues are dealt with, but in a spirit of cooperation. What we have learned over the years is that direct confrontation with the government is not the way to solve problems."
The United Nations' humanitarian chief, John Holmes, recently noted that the process of getting to the delta is "still more bureaucratic and unpredictable than in the ideal world." The extent of the devastation also remains unseen because access is most difficult further south and away from the main townships, areas that can only be reached through narrow waterways with very small boats.
"I think that's where the needs still are quite considerable and that's where we'll focus the relief efforts over the next few months," he said.
The recovery has been slowed by the military government's xenophobia and poor performance, the difficulties of operating in the delta and in one of the world's poorest countries, and the sheer magnitude of the calamity.
The United Nations says the government's foreign exchange system has resulted in the loss of as much as 25 percent of relief aid. This is because Myanmar requires the conversion of foreign aid money into Foreign Exchange Certificates at a set price and then into the country's national currency, the kyat. The certificates have been worth as much as 25 percent less than the market value of an equivalent number of dollars.
"This is a big concern," said Dan Baker, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar. "The donors aren't going to give us money if they know they will (lose) a percentage of that."
To date, relief funds from foreign donors have come to $339 million, according to the United Nations.
Victims complain about the dearth of official assistance. The real post-cyclone heroes have proved to be individual donors, small private groups and Buddhist monks — some of whom have been harassed, curbed and sometimes arrested by the junta for their efforts.
The scale of the disaster would put even the most advanced nations to a severe test. According to a recent assessment, total damage in the delta and parts of Yangon is estimated at $4 billion.
Meanwhile, many villagers continue to suffer — and are far less diplomatic about the military regime than some aid workers.
"I don't expect any help from the government. I just know that if I ask them for help I would have to give them something in return. But I have nothing now," said Khin Maung Kyi, the farmer from the delta area of Kungyangon.
All the storm left him were six acres of rice fields. But he no longer has children to work in the fields, and he and his wife are weak from the lack of food, blistering sun and monsoon rains.
"We have no plan for the future," he said. "The only thing we have to think about now is how to find food for tomorrow. Having enough food to eat like we had before seems to be a dream now."