Update from the Field

May 18, 2008

Real Medicine partner NGO in Yangon, Myanmar

The skies have turned anthracite grey this afternoon in Yangon – an ominous sign that heavy rains are on their way in a few minutes. Winds are pushing the temporary plastic windows up against the back of my chair as I write. On my desk are photographs taken earlier this week of families in the Irrawaddy Delta huddled under a fallen tree during a downpour. These are dark days in Myanmar. The magnitude of the crisis here is almost unimaginable. The latest realistic estimates are that over 100,000 people have died and about 2 million people are affected. It's hard to get one's head around this. We've had our staff out in the affected areas for over ten days now. They come back and forth with so many tragic stories. Whole families drowned. Sole survivors of an entire village. People with broken hips and major injuries with no one to care for them. Houses obliterated by 120mph winds. Countless swollen dead bodies floating in the small creeks and rivers that crisscross the Delta. Skin sandblasted raw from the wind. Families stripped of all of their possessions by the cyclone. Suicidal survivors. Traumatized children.

Almost two weeks after the cyclone tore through the Delta, thousands of families are now lined up along the high ground of rural roads with nothing to eat and virtually no shelter. Hundreds and hundreds of devastated but accessible villages have still not received one ounce of assistance. A massive public health crisis is emerging as people who are weak, traumatized, malnourished and often injured have no shelter or food. Children and elderly people with diarrhea are wasting away. The amount of aid reaching victims in just a trickle compared to the millions of people in desperate need.

We're focusing on providing emergency clean water – trying to reach 25,000 new people every day. And we've just ramped up our emergency shelter work – to 5,000 roofs each day (another 25,000 people a day). The logistics of this effort is formidable, across a flooded and ravaged landscape. We're procuring everything locally and prices for plastic sheeting are rising everyday. Our 27 teams are also providing a good bit of food and basic necessities – on an opportunistic basis. When we can do cash transfers of $5-10 per family in an orderly and transparent manner – usually at a village monastery. Just arranging for the cash to do all this – financial transfers in a country with no banking system and an official exchange rate – is taking a great deal of ingenuity and lots of trust. We are really stretching to gear up rapidly to do all this on a meaningful scale. But when we see the pictures and hear about so many people suffering, it feels like so little. This indeed is a crisis of unimaginable proportions.

Country Page: Myanmar Initiative Page: Cyclone Nargis Disaster Relief