Myanmar: Females hit worst by Cyclone Nargis

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Monday, July 28, 2008 BANGKOK - Nearly three months after the powerful Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, it has emerged that the majority of those who died in the devastated area were women.

Sixty one percent of those who died were female, reveals the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA), a report released by the tripartite group set up to respond to the humanitarian crisis in military-ruled Burma, or Myanmar. "In some severely affected villages, twice as many women aged 18-60 died as men," the report said.

The same pattern was also evident in the deaths of children in the 5-12 age group and the among the children below five years, where there was a noticeably higher number of young girls who died when Nargis struck than young boys, adds the 187-page report, released last week.

But this report stuck to the official death toll that was released in the weeks after Nargis struck on the night of May 3. "The official death toll stood at 84,537 with 53,836 people still missing and 19,359 injured," it notes. "Assessment data shows that some 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone, out of an estimated 7.35 million people living in the affected townships."

Yet other estimates have put the human toll much higher, with possibly close to 300,000 people being killed and some 5.5 million people affected.

The tripartite group is made up of officials from the Burmese government, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the 10-member regional bloc of which Burma is a member. Asean took the lead in this initiative, helping to create a "humanitarian bridge," since Burma's military regime appeared averse to opening the country to post-disaster foreign assistance, including aid workers, and foreign donors being reluctant to pour funds into a country ruled by an oppressive and notoriously corrupt regime.

"The recovery period is still with us. We are not going into any long-term planning," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, at a press conference Friday in Bangkok. "Cyclone Nargis was one of the most horrific natural disasters that ever visited Southeast Asia, following the (December 2004) tsunami."

"The damage of the cyclone was enormous and it will have long-range consequences," added Dan Baker, UN humanitarian coordinator in Burma, who was the world body's representative in the group that produced PONJA. "Nearly 75 percent of all health facilities were destroyed or damaged."

The report also shed light on the economic and social cost of the natural disaster. "Nargis struck just as the Delta's paddy farmers were at the very last stage of harvesting the so-called 'dry season' crop, which accounts for about 25 percent of the annual (rice) productions in the affected area, and destroyed several rice warehouses and their stocks," it reveals. "A million acres of farmland were inundated with seawater, causing serious death and destruction to humans, livestock, farm animals, infrastructure, and means of production and livelihoods."

"The devastation caused by Nargis has impacted heavily on the availability of food stocks, as well as seeds and tools for the June-July (main) planting season," it states. "Over all, only 25 percent of the affected areas reported having enough seeds."

The damage to the homes of the largely poor communities that lived in the Delta was as severe. "Nargis affected approximately 800,000 housing units: around 450,000 units are estimated to have been totally damaged and around 350,000 unites were more lightly damaged," states the report. "Before the cyclone, it is estimated that 50 percent of all housing unites were built of wood and bamboo with wood or bamboo floors on stilts."

Looking ahead, the PONJA notes that assistance is needed for safe drinking water and safe excreta disposal for 1.4 million affected people through April 2009, and "the rehabilitation of traditional ponds and rainwater harvesting systems by September 2008."

The area around Rangoon, the former capital, which also took a beating, is in dire need for aid, too, since the storm "affected four million people, causing damage to 486.539 homes, over 7,900 factories and commercial establishments," states PONJA. "Moreover 300,713 acres of farmland were flooded."

But the report has not been received with universal approval. Groups familiar with the iron grip with which Burma's military leaders have ruled the country for the past 46 years were skeptical.

"We are supposed to believe the official story because it reads nice and looks nice. We are supposed to believe that the report of the international community, the UN is correct," said Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace laureate, who was in Bangkok. "But the assessment team included representatives of the Burmese junta who went from village to village.

We have to stop accepting the official stories."

Yet those involved with the report argued otherwise, saying there had been no restrictions. "We mobilized 350 people (for the assessment). They had full access, no hindrances," said Puji Pujiono, disaster assessment specialist for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

He conceded, however, that the political climate in Burma is challenging. "The political situation in Myanmar makes any choices we make very difficult," he says. "The political complications will remain."