YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — The official death toll from Cyclone Nargis has nearly doubled to almost 78,000 and another 56,000 people remain missing two weeks after the storm, Myanmar state television reported Friday.
The United Nations, meanwhile, said that severe restrictions by Myanmar’s military junta have left aid agencies largely in the dark about the extent of survivors’ suffering.
John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, will go to Myanmar on Sunday in an attempt to convince junta leaders to grant more access to U.N. relief workers and massively scale up aid efforts, said Amanda Pitt, a U.N. spokeswoman in Bangkok, Thailand.
With pressure mounting, the military regime has invited foreign diplomats to tour the hard-hit Irrawaddy delta on Saturday, providing their first opportunity to personally view the devastation.
U.S. Embassy charge d’affaires Shari Villarosa told The Associated Press Friday that the Foreign Ministry was arranging the trip, but no further details were available and it was unclear how much access the diplomats will have outside the controlled tour.
The handful of foreign experts who have been allowed into the country have been restricted to Yangon, the former capital. The government has set up police and military checkpoints on roads leading out of Yangon to Irrawaddy, where foreigners are being turned back.
The Red Cross fears the cyclone toll may be as high as 128,000; the U.N. estimates more than 100,000 died. The U.N. estimates 1.5 million to 2.5 million survivors are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. Aid groups have reached only 270,000 so far.
“The risk increases with each passing day,” Pitt said, referring to the vulnerability of survivors to outbreaks of disease and other problems.
Lack of clean water will be “the biggest killer” in Irrawaddy in the coming days, Thomas Gurtner, the head of operations for the international Red Cross, told The Associated Press in Geneva.
“To be able to provide clean water to hundreds of thousands of people stranded in the (Irrawaddy) delta requires a major operation, which we have neither the material, the logistical nor the staff capacity to do,” he said.
The U.N. health agency said Friday it was concerned about diarrhea, malaria and dengue fever spreading among the cyclone victims.
The junta insists Myanmar nationals and government agencies, including the military, can handle relief operations, particularly aid distribution.
“We still have obstacles to relief workers getting to the delta region, which doesn’t help,” Pitt said. “We are concerned about the effects on the people. It is clear, from what everyone is saying, the aid effort is far from over.”
The United Nations says the regime has issued 40 visas to its staffers and another 46 to nongovernment agencies but has confined the personnel to the immediate Yangon area.
Steve Marshall, a U.N. official who just came out of Myanmar, said the military has set up checkpoints on the two main roads to the delta to keep foreigners out of the disaster zone. Even local staff have to negotiate with the military to gain access to the camps.
“Things will still get done, but they will not be done as effectively, efficiently or as quickly, which means delays, which means increasing risk in terms of health, security and in terms of longer-term rehabilitation and getting back to a normal lifestyle,” he said.
The U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said Friday the agency’s fourth flight into Myanmar, scheduled for Saturday, would deliver several tons of food for malnourished children. Radio broadcasts are trying to help lost children find their families, it said.
“At the moment, it is a difficult to know how many children have been separated or unaccompanied. We still have no indication of how many orphans there may be,” said Shantha Bloemen, a UNICEF spokeswoman.
Meanwhile the U.N.’s World Food Program said Friday it has applied for permission to operate a civilian helicopter to distribute aid across Myanmar.
In the absence of an organized relief effort by the government, ordinary people are stepping in, with shopkeepers handing out free rice porridge and medical students caring for the sick.
Daw Mya Win, a 49-year-old grocer in a Yangon suburb, cooks rice porridge every day to feed anyone who comes. She also sends pots of it to some of the thousands of homeless sheltering in Buddhist monasteries.
College students are going door-to-door, handing out a few pennies to families for rice.
“Whenever we distribute rice and clothing, I can see the faces of the cyclone victims light up. It is very rewarding to see them smile,” said Nyi Nyi, 21