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Myanmar Leader Goes to Disaster Zones as Floods Batter Countryside

A woman and her child look out from their residence half-submerged in floodwaters in Bago, 80 kilometers northeast of Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, Aug 1, 2015.

Myanmar's president headed to devastated rural regions where a state of emergency was declared after deadly monsoon rains displaced tens of thousands of people, flooded swathes of rice paddy and prompted fears of dams collapsing.

Thein Sein was due to arrive on Saturday at a military base in Sagaing Division, a major rice growing area where soldiers are coordinating a relief effort after a month of rain over all but two of Myanmar's 14 states.

The storms and floods have so far killed 21 people, with water levels as high as 2.5 meters in Sagaing and 4.5 meters in western Rakhine state, according to the government, which on Friday declared four regions disaster zones.

Myanmar was inundated throughout last month and storms since July 22 have "severely affected" between 67,000 and 110,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Though rain has stopped in most areas, the recovery effort is a major test for impoverished Myanmar. The country has only basic infrastructure and medical facilities and is ill-equipped to deal with disasters, as shown when Cyclone Nargis battered the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, killing 130,000 people.

"It's an emergency situation we have never faced before," said Aung Zaw Oo, the local transport minister for Sagaing. "We have only two motor boats for the rescue process. The government plans to send more."

Nearly 525,000 acres of farmland has been affected, an area roughly the size of Luxembourg, and more than 34,000 acres of paddy fields damaged, mostly in the Sagaing, Kachin State, Bago and Rakhine state regions, the agriculture ministry said.

Television footage showed bridges damaged or shaking from the strong current of floodwater. Cattle were drowned or seen with only their noses poking above the flow of water.

Local TV quoted people in Sagaing, Shan state and Magway saying they were worried that dams already over their safe limit could collapse if more rain came.

More than 150 tents were swept away by storm winds at a camp for Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine, where the United Nations refugee agency was providing some help to a mostly stateless minority that already lives in harsh, apartheid-like conditions.

The state's Mrauk Oo town was completely flooded.

"Even when food and relief goods were airlifted by helicopters to the flooded town, there was nowhere to store these goods and no roads for trucks to drive on," the state's Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told MRTV on Friday.