The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says clean water is urgently needed to prevent epidemics of waterborne diseases in cyclone-stricken Burma. The Red Cross is launching an appeal for $51 million to assist half a million victims of Cyclone Nargis over the next three years. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the launch of the appeal in Geneva.
The secretary-general of the Red Cross Federation, Markus Niskala, describes Cyclone Nargis as a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions.
"We estimate that up to two million people have been affected," he said. "Reports we are getting back from river state in the Delta region are that the situation for hundreds of thousands of people there is overwhelming. People do not have shelter. They do not have access to clean water and food and there is little access to even basic health care."
The Red Cross says the immediate focus of its appeal will be on meeting the basic survival needs of the victims. This means supplying them with emergency shelter, distributing relief and providing clean water to prevent epidemics.
It warns lack of clean water will be the biggest killer in Burma in the coming days. It says people are at risk of getting ill and dying from waterborne diseases including dysentery and diarrhea.
Director of Programs for the Red Cross, Thomas Gurtner, says only 20 to 30 percent of the survivors have received any assistance. He says the heavy rains that are predicted in the coming days will make it even more difficult for aid workers to reach those in need.
"I think it is already now almost impossible to reach by normal roads the areas because the ground is so soaked. This obviously is going to become even worse," he said. "I would say every day counts at present. It is a matter of days. It is not a matter of weeks. What we will have to do is we will have to adapt to the meteorological conditions. We are in discussions from a logistics point of view to look at seaborne aid in one form or the other, floating warehouses with landing craft, etc."
An estimated 27,000 local Red Cross volunteers began providing aid to the victims immediately after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma two weeks ago. Since the storm, 21 expatriate Red Cross and Red Crescent aid workers have joined the team.
More aid is being flown into Burma. But, the military rulers continue to refuse entry to foreign experts whose skills are needed to distribute the aid speedily and efficiently. Humanitarian officials agree many lives will be lost unless the government reverses this policy.