Friday, May 23, 2008

Couple of Links

AmeriCares is on the ground in Myanmar, and reports on the issues in moving outside of Yangon in a USA Today article.

Countercurrents offers and op-ed piece on the disaster in "A Tale of Two Storms".

Myanmar to Allow All Aid Workers?

Given the recent past history of Myanmar's government in terms of allowing most relief workers into the country, a report today indicates that the government will now allow all aid workers into the country needs to be viewed a bit skeptically. Never the less, it's a positive development nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis tore through the region. The agreement with the United Nations also might be an indicator of just how bad - and overwhelming - conditions are in the Irrawaddy delta:

Myanmar's junta agreed on Friday to admit cyclone aid workers "regardless of nationalities" to the hardest-hit Irrawaddy Delta, a breakthrough for delivering help to survivors, U.N. officials said.

Western disaster experts, largely kept out of the delta and restricted to the former capital Yangon, welcomed the news but wanted more details on the deal struck by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and junta supremo Than Shwe.

"The general said he saw no reason why that should not happen ... as long as they were genuine humanitarian workers and it was clear what they were going to be doing," a U.N. official with Ban said...

The initial report of agreement doesn't discuss the military ships from the international community that are waiting offshore to deliver relief supplies. It's safe to assume that the Myanmar government isn't going to let the ships dock, but it seems open to civilian ships and boats offloading supplies. That's a start.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Myanmar Perspective

The ongoing tragedy in Myanmar has shined a spotlight on the isolationist government of the country more than any other event in recent history. Yesterday, I received an email from a well intentioned person asking me to post a link to a particular website that is championing regime change in Myanmar. I responded as follows:

Thanks for the email. One would hope that the current crisis in Myanmar would transcend political considerations on the part of the junta, but obviously that hasn't happened, at least to the extent that one would hope. I'm cautiously optimistic that the junta's acceptance of relief coordination from ASEAN is a move in the right direction.

As you probably understand, I've tried to keep Myanmar Relief completely non-antagonistic in nature, and avoid the political theater that's been going on for the past two weeks. My preference at this moment in time is to concentrate on what's working, in hopes that whatever positive developments have occurred can serve as guidance for other NGOs and nations that want to assist.

In some respects, I can actually understand the paranoia of the ruling junta. That doesn't mean that I support the regime, in any manner, but if I were a paranoid dictator in a country that was beset by natural disaster, it seems natural to suspect all external offers of aid as a trojan horse for regime change efforts by the international community. Again, that doesn't mean I support the regime - only that I understand the origin of the paranoia.

That being said, at this moment in time, I'm reluctant to potentially jeopardize the efforts of any of the agencies I've been working through by linking to your great efforts. I hope you understand that at this moment in time, we're operating in two different worlds, even though they're not necessarily at cross-purpose with each other. I'd be happy to explore the possibility of linking efforts and working together once we're past the immediate needs.

Best regards,


Readers of this blog will also note that I have elected to use the official name of the country of Myanmar in my blog posts, rather than Burma. There is a simple reason. It is the official name of the country, and assuming that someone in the Myanmar government stumbles onto this blog, there is no reason to antagonize the regime and potentially endanger some of the relief efforts being documented in this blog.

I've also noticed something about the coverage of the Myanmar crisis here in the U.S. - let's call it "editorial hubris". When a publication like Time Magazine elects to ignore the journalistic protocol of using the legal entity name of a country or a municipality in that country, it's a boneheaded editorial decision, and doesn't serve to help matters in the immediate crisis. Here's Time's disclaimer to a recent article:

The junta that rules the country unilaterally decreed changes in place names, including Myanmar for Burma and Yangon for the former capital Rangoon. The U.S. State Department has not recognized these changes. TIME has chosen to retain the name Burma.

And anyone wonders why the Myanmar government distrusts the intention of international governments and aid agencies? Because the U.S. State Department doesn't recognize the name, a widely circulated U.S. news magazine doesn't, either? I just don't understand this approach, particularly at this point in time.

There are many viewpoints, thoughts, and theories on why the government in Myanmar has been so reluctant to accept outside aid. Countercurrents offers an extensive analysis of this reluctance (note: I don't necessarily agree with some of the finer aspects of the article, but as a primer and overview, the article is great).

Monday, May 19, 2008

Homegrown Help

In any disaster relief scenario, my experience has been that people in the affected country band together, and help each other. The ongoing crisis in Myanmar is no exception:

Rangoon travel agent Chin Chin used to take tourists to a nearby Irrawaddy delta town famous for its pottery. But the vast waterworld of rivers and rice fields that stretched beyond it was a foreign land to her until Cyclone Nargis and its horrific aftermath. On Thursday, Chin Chin and her friends bought rice and water, loaded it on a truck, and drove deep into the delta. She was shocked by what she saw: roads lined with hundreds of cold and hungry villagers, disregarded by their own government, who had walked for an hour from their broken villages to beg from passing motorists...

The monks are also on the move again. Buddhist temples and monasteries have always played a central role in helping the needy in Burma (as, in this religiously and ethnically diverse country, have churches, mosques and Hindu temples). After the cyclone, monks led small-scale relief efforts into the delta, the distinctive multicolored flags of their faith fluttering from cars and small trucks. Monks from well-known monasteries in Mandalay and elsewhere in Burma are either in the delta or heading there, while in Pakkoku - the Irrawaddy town near Mandalay where last year's protests originated - their brethren are reportedly soliciting donations for cyclone victims. Shwe Pyi Hein Monastery, which already runs a free clinic in Rangoon, has dispatched five volunteer doctors to the disaster area, who are treating more than 100 people every day.

Despite the participation of thousands of Burmese, the impact of this homegrown relief effort will always limited, admits Zaganar. "We deliver our supplies by road because we cannot afford a boat," he says. "But most victims live close to the water. We cannot get through to them." He says Burma desperately needs more boats and helicopters from abroad...

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, it wasn't the U.S. government that was first on the scene. Private citizens and non-organized church groups in nearby non-affected areas were the first into the devastated region with supplies, boats, and medical assistance. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that those in Myanmar who could help their fellow citizens were the first to mobilize, and work their own internal networks. Where networks don't exist, they're improvising and working around government restrictions.

Know of any success stories? Drop me an email and I'll post them...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Latest Casualty Figures - 200,000??

As I've acknowledged previously, in any given disaster situation, early casualty figures are notoriously unreliable. So, take the following report from MS-NBC with a grain of salt:

YANGON - Torrential tropical downpours lashed Myanmar's cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta on Friday as state television said cyclone death toll has reached almost 78,000, with another 56,000 people missing.

British officials have said the number of dead and missing may exceed 200,000. Given Myanmar's ban on foreign journalists and restrictions on movement for most international aid workers, independent assessments are difficult.

Thousands of destitute victims took to roadsides to beg for help to supplement the meager trickle of aid flowing in...

200,000 seems high - but given the almost total inaccessibility of the Irrawaddy delta area, maybe it's actually low. I've avoided posting gruesome videos that are available on YouTube which were apparently shot in the delta region - it's bad. Really bad.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Appeal from Burmese Monk

Found on YouTube...

Turf Wars in Times of Crisis

I've been involved with non-profit organizations and relief agencies, in one capacity or another, for the better part of the past 20 years. One of the things that always strikes me during disaster response situations is the nature of turf wars within the NGO community.

The NGO questionnaire that I posted last week has received exactly one response, despite the fact that it was emailed to every agency on my rather extensive list. And yesterday, I once again emailed those on my list, asking a few simple questions:

Is your organization on the ground yet in Myanmar?
Are you encountering obstacles in trying to get supplies or personnel into the coutry?
What's working?
What's not?

I understand that many of my contacts (and the agencies that they represent) are very busy at this time, coordinating response to both Myanmar and the China earthquake. Still, my experience tells me that the lack of replies to either the questionnaire or the above questions is as much a reflection of individual agencies not wishing to disclose information in a public forum that could be utilized by competing NGOs.

In economic times such as we in the U.S. are facing, philanthropic support and individual donations to NGOs tends to be the first thing to be cut when budgets must be tightened. And chasing the dollars is always a struggle for any non-profit entity. But I would suspect that organizations such as Thirst-Aid and AmeriCares have benefited tremendously from their openness in publicizing their work and their needs.

Hopefully, the agency turf wars won't get in the way of sharing information and strategies in working either the Myanmar or China disasters. There is too much to be done, with too little time remaining, for community squabbles to get in the way of actually getting things done.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

USAF, USN Prepping Relief Efforts

Two YouTube videos, one of preparations on the USS Essex, and one of preparations for the first USAF airlift into Yangon.

Prepping water bladders, USS Essex:

USAF video, first airlift preparations:

Thirst-Aid Making Inroads in Relief Efforts

There are many NGOs that toil in relative obscurity for years in the most remote and politically inhospitable locations on the planet. Thirst-Aid is once such organization. I profiled their efforts last week as the disaster was unfolding, and received an update today from Bree Ervin:

The Thirst-Aid team has brought in 4 million Aqua Tabs for emergency water purification. They are also using their filters, and filters donated by Global Medics to create reservoirs of potable water for cyclone victims to use. “We’re working on getting cholera medicine into the country now. Curt Bradner is planning to be in Bangkok Wednesday and then we will go back into Myanmar together, hopefully with enough medicine to treat the 100,000 people we estimate to be sick right now.” Cathy Bradner is in Bangkok working with other NGOs to organize the relief effort and make sure that the right supplies are getting in.

“We have one team member in Myanmar at all times; making sure supplies are getting into the right hands. We’re keeping one person in Bangkok to keep up communication with other NGOs working to bring aid in. Our third member is in constant motion between our filter factories, Yangon, Bangkok, and meetings with other organizations. Right now we’re taking turns so we don’t burn out on any one role.”

...“When Thirst-Aid goes into a country we don’t swoop in with a big group of foreigners. Up until this year it was just Curt and Cathy. This year we added Bryan Berenguer (pictured) and he has been our Myanmar Field Director”. What thirst-Aid does next is hire locals to build ceramic water filter factories, develop culturally appropriate safe water education materials, and put together local distribution networks. It is this organizational model that is allowing them so much success in Myanmar while so many others are struggling.

Bree points out that, “Only a few locals are being allowed into the hardest hit areas, no foreigners at all. That’s stopping a lot of organizations from responding in those areas, but we have the local contacts, we’re getting in. And we’re helping to get supplies from other groups to those areas too. We’re all having to come together and really pool our resources for this one.” ...

Thirst-Aid has issued two press releases in the past 24 hours detailing the scope of their efforts. Since the press releases aren't yet available on their website, I'll add them as a download feature here a bit later today.

The bottom line is that there are success stories that will emerge from Myanmar. As I noted before, the agencies that have been working in the country and established relationships are having the easiest time accessing the country and getting assistance where it's needed.

Update: Check out this Associated Press story about Thirst-Aid!

Do You Shop Online or Use Ebay?

Mission Fish is a philanthropic arm of Ebay / Paypal, and is used by sellers to direct a portion of their online sales to charitable organizations. A page has been set up for Myanmar Cyclone Nargis Relief, and many online merchants and Ebay sellers are already participating.

More background info on Mission Fish is available here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

U.S. Dept. of Treasury Lifts Restrictions on Money Transfers to Myanmar

The U.S. Department of Treasury today lifted the restrictions on personal money transfers for those who have friends and family in Myanmar / Burma:

The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in consultation with the Department of State, has moved to ease the humanitarian crisis in Burma by removing the limit on funds that U.S. individuals are allowed to send to family and friends in Burma.

"The people of Burma need all the help we can provide during this crisis," said OFAC Director Adam J. Szubin. "This action will speed the flow of aid to the Burmese people by allowing Americans to send an unlimited amount of funds to their relatives and friends who are in need."

This action, made effective by the issuance of General License No. 15, authorizes U.S. financial institutions to process transfers of funds, unlimited in amount, for noncommercial, personal remittances to or from Burma, or for or on behalf of an individual ordinarily resident in Burma. Prior to the issuance of this general license, noncommercial, personal remittances to Burma were only permitted if the total remittances did not exceed $300 per Burmese household in any consecutive three-month period...

(Via World Wide Help)

Muscle Into Myanmar?

An article on Time Magazine's site is receiving a lot of attention, because it posits that maybe it's time to "invade" Myanmar in order to ameliorate the burgeoning crisis. Time editor Romesh Ratnesar is also defending his position on NPR's Talk of the Nation this afternoon, and I'll put up a link once the discussion is archived. (Update: link here)

The following press release was issued on 5/11/08 by the 31st U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit:

ABOARD USS ESSEX, At Sea , May 11, 2008 - Marines and Sailors with the Essex Amphibious Readiness Group are preparing for possible humanitarian assistance operations to aid cyclone-stricken Burma.

The Essex Amphibious Ready Group, along with 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, is steaming to support potential humanitarian-assistance operations in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma May 1 and 2. Some estimates have put the death toll at more than 100,000. So far, the Burmese military government has allowed only one U.S. shipment of relief supplies.

"This is what we are here for," Navy Chief Petty Officer Andres Carillo, of the USS Essex, said. "It's our mission to help those in need."

The amphibious readiness group includes the forward-deployed amphibious ships USS Essex, USS Juneau, USS Harpers Ferry and USS Mustin. The servicemembers are working to fill more than 14,000 5-gallon plastic water bladders with fresh water. In the event of humanitarian operations, the water could be loaded onto landing craft and helicopters to be distributed to those affected by the cyclone...

What do you think? Is it time, as Ranesar believes, to "give war a chance"? Or should NGOs and the international community continue to work through established channels, no matter how frustrating the efforts might be?

Personal FAQ

I've been asked why I created Myanmar Relief, and what my connection is to Myanmar / Burma.

The short answer to the "why" question is fairly simple: I'm an organizer by nature, and also have a fairly strong social conscience. About 15 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Florida, it was clear to me that local or national disaster response governmental bureaucracies (and even NGOs, in some cases) aren't necessarily the most efficient organizations when it comes to quickly getting aid where it's needed. So I reached out to my personal networks of contacts, friends, and families, and organized one of the first relief efforts to reach South Florida after the hurricane.

Since that time, when a major disaster hits anywhere in the world (or I perceive a grievous social injustice) I've tried to assist in some manner. The internet has become a fantastic tool for organizing and focusing the necessary information, and I've developed the skills (and networking contacts) over the years to quickly throw a site like this together in order to aggregate information and facilitate relief efforts.

One thing that drives me absolutely crazy is when political considerations get in the way of helping every day people in humanitarian situations. Then again, that's why you haven't read much here about the political situation in Myanmar, and why I've tried to limit any commentary about delays in getting aid where it's needed. In taking this approach, I've tried to focus on how to get the job done, rather than bitch about the obstacles.

My connection to the tragedy? None, other than my connection to the human race. That's the strongest connection I can imagine.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Myanmar Relief Agency Updates

From email, International Red Cross contact info:

Myanmar Red Cross Society
phone: +95 1 383680; fax: +95 1 383675, email:

Federation country office in Myanmar: Bridget Gardner, head of country office
phone: +95 95130564; fax: +95 1 682588; email:

For mobilization of relief items: Jeremy Francis, regional logistics coordinator
phone: +60 12298 9752, fax: +60 3 2168 8573, email:

Update from VIA Programs

I received the following email from VIA Programs, which has an ongoing presence in Myanmar:

Hi Richard,

I want to share with you a note from one of our former volunteers who is still in Myanmar. She sent this two days ago. Perhaps some of the information is useful. See below.

The situation in the delta and coastal regions becomes increasingly dire everyday. The next week is crucial as people struggle against dehydration, starvation and disease. Internal migrants have clustered in neighboring towns and villages both in search of water and to escape the stench of dead bodies. They have the clothes on their backs but little else. There are nearly no sanitation facilities to clean wounds from the storm's damage and an overwhelming lack of medical supplies. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Ayeyarwaddy Division alone, 26 makeshift relief camps have been set up to accommodate over 100,000 refugees. The number of people homeless and vulnerable are estimated to be between 2 to 4 million. The need for immediate outside assistance is staggering. See their website for more information.

In contrast, the situation in central Yangon has improved in the six days since Cyclone Nargis. Internet access and phone lines have returned for several businesses, hotels and households. The city electricity grid is working for parts of downtown and north of the city. Fuel prices seem to be stabilizing. Though on Monday the black market price jumped from $2.50 to $8.50 per gallon, on Thursday it dropped to $7.70 per gallon. Food costs, however, remain high. An egg that used to cost $0.10 now costs $0.43, and rice prices have at least doubled. Central Yangon, however, is far better off than the outskirts of the city (e.g. Dala or Hlaing Thayar) which still need much assistance.

Many people have asked me how to help. You can

  • Give to a local non-governmental organization. I strongly recommend Metta Development Foundation, In 2004, Metta was part of the tsunami relief efforts in southern Myanmar and have maintained a presence there that now is being utilized. The organization has over 450 committed staff members and nearly 11 years experience in the field. Their project workers in the cyclone-affected areas were out helping the day after the storm hit and have impacted about 2,100 lives in the past six days. Coordinating with UNWFP, UNICEF, UNDP, ADRA and PACT, Metta is currently distributing food, water, medical supplies and living essentials to the refugee camps in Ayeyarwaddy Division. They are dedicating 100% of funds given to the cyclone victims towards getting to and assisting the affected people (administration and overhead costs will be absorbed by the organization). Please email one of Metta's founders, Seng Raw, at for details on how to transfer funds into a Singapore account which is accessible to them the day after the deposit. I have to move to Vietnam in two weeks for a work commitment I made prior to the cyclone but while here will help Metta to email updates to all donors on what is being done daily (which will continue after I leave).

  • Pledge money through me. I have funds in country now that I am taking out to give to individuals and businesses going into indigent neighborhoods on the outskirts of Yangon. These people need the financial assistance NOW that can buy them drinking water and food. If you email me what you'd like to contribute, I can give in your name. Every dollar counts. For the price of one night's dinner out, you can save lives.

  • Give to an international organization. There are many good organizations working in Myanmar and here are some I believe have the best on-the-ground resources and experience in emergency work. Remember to specify that you want the funds to go to the Myanmar cyclone relief efforts when you give.
    1. Artsen Zonder Grenzen or Medicins Sans Frontieres—Doctors without Borders Holland or Switzerland, respectively. They have many health and food programs within Myanmar already.
    2. Save the Children Myanmar (U.S.)
    3. Care International Myanmar (U.K.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

NGO Questionnaire Response: AmeriCares

Mr. Curt Welling of AmeriCares provided the following responses to the questionnaire that was posted yesterday for all interested NGOs. I will post all individual responses received, and also roll up into a spreadsheet early next week:

NGO Questionnaire Response: AmeriCares

What is AmeriCares "niche" in disaster recovery from an event such as Cyclone Nargis, particularly in a closed society such as that in Myanmar?

AmeriCares expertise or “niche” is in disaster recovery is the supply of medicines and relief supplies to health care providers; networking in partnership with governments, international bodies, NGOs and pharmaceutical donors to quickly and effectively deliver aid to those in need.

AmeriCares has over 25 years of experience providing disaster relief and recovery in countries with significant access and security issues. For example, AmeriCares has been working in Darfur since 2004 and is about to send its 10th airlift of medicines and medical supplies into West Darfur in a matter of weeks. We delivered aid into Iran following the Bam earthquake in December 2004 and into Pakistan following the earthquake in 2005. We have also delivered aid to politically and logistically challenging countries such as North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. We are successful in negotiating with governments by focusing on the main goal – providing immediate relief to their citizens suffering in the wake of a disaster.

Has your organization worked in the past in Myanmar / Burma?

Through AmeriCares Medical Outreach Program, we donate medical products to volunteer U.S. healthcare professionals who travel overseas to provide charitable medical care to some of the most marginalized and under-served people in more than 70 countries around the world. Many of the Medical Outreach Program missions have provided assistance to patients in Myanmar/Burma.

If so, what has been your organization's experience in working with the national government?

We are in the process of working through diplomatic channels to secure clearance for our people and aid.

What is AmeriCares involvement with Cyclone Nargis relief efforts at this point? Do you have personnel on the ground in Myanmar at this time?

AmeriCares has personnel on the ground in Bangkok. We are working through diplomatic channels to secure visas for them and additional expert aid workers and to receive clearance to deliver an initial airlift of over 15 tons of medicines and medical supplies to Myanmar. We are actively coordinating with aid agencies and NGOs in-country to assess the situation and determine what additional medicines and medical supplies will be needed to treat the short-term and long-term health complications brought on by the cyclone.

From a triage perspective, what are the most basic needs on the ground, and what is AmeriCares' role in meeting those needs? And in a longer range view, how do you see your participation in recovery efforts integrating into a post-recovery environment?

In a disaster, time is of the essence. Survivors need basic medical care, safe drinking water, food and shelter. And they need it quickly; a quick response ensures that a greater number of people can be saved.

In the case of a cyclone, basic first aid materials, antibiotics and water purification treatments are all desperately needed. AmeriCares has assembled an airlift containing 15 tons of antibiotics, analgesics, ointments and multivitamins as well as supplies such as water purification tablets to treat the immediate needs of those injured and to help prevent the anticipated spread of illness and disease throughout the region.

Post-recovery, AmeriCares is a partner in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of local health care infrastructures. AmeriCares played a critical role in the relief and reconstruction efforts in Indonesia and Sri Lanka following the December 2004 tsunami, in which some 160,000 people perished. We are still there, rebuilding hospitals, water and sanitation infrastructure, supporting training and providing medical equipment to many communities. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, we have worked to construct and rehabilitate 44 health care facilities including hospitals, clinics and health posts, and have supplied over 200 health care facilities with equipment, medicine and medical supplies.

Given the scale of the destruction in Myanmar, we anticipate providing long-term aid and continuing to support healthcare workers on-the-ground.

Are you coordinating response with other NGOs or local relief agencies in Myanmar?

Yes. AmeriCares is working with the WHO Health Sector in Bangkok – the United Nation’s coordinating body for the relief effort in Myanmar. We are working with our international NGO colleagues and their local partners in Myanmar as well as teams that organize volunteer missions following natural disasters.

Anything else that you think is important for people to know about relief efforts in general, or AmeriCares involvement in particular?

At time of great natural disaster, many individuals are moved to do something to help ease the suffering of those most affected. AmeriCares encourages individuals that the best way to help victims of Cyclone Nargis is to donate money to reputable relief organizations. AmeriCares relies on donations of medicines, medical equipment and relief supplies from manufacturers and on financial donations to fund the transportation of relief aid to the affected areas. To learn more about how to donate to AmeriCares, visit:

Benefits and Fundraisers?

If anyone is aware of benefits or fundraisers for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, anywhere in the world, please drop me an email and I'll post the details here.

Also, was informed this morning that Americares is going to be using Twitter to keep everyone abreast of what they're doing in terms of relief efforts, and what their teams on the ground are finding. I heard last night that phone and internet services are being restored, at least in parts of Yangon / Rangoon. That's good, at least from the standpoint that to have internet and phone, they have to be restoring electricity as well.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

NGO Questionnaire - Myanmar/Burma

If you represent an NGO that is participating in Myanmar/Burma recovery efforts (or plans to do so), the following questionnaire can be used to document your agency's efforts. Please cut and paste into your email program, answer whatever questions are appropriate for your organization, and forward to:

I've already sent this out to several agencies, and will compile all information that is received by early next week into a downloadable spreadsheet.

What is your organization's "niche" in disaster recovery from an event such as Cyclone Nargis?

Has your organization worked in the past in Myanmar / Burma?

If so, what has been your organization's experience in working with the national government?

What is your organization's involvement with Cyclone Nargis relief efforts at this point?

Do you have personnel on the ground in Myanmar/Burma at this point in time?

Are you coordinating response with other NGOs or local relief agencies in Myanmar/Burma?

From a triage perspective, what are the most basic needs on the ground, and what is your organization's role in meeting those needs?

And in a longer range view, how do you see your participation in recovery efforts integrating into a post-disaster environment?

Myanmar relief contacts at your agency:


In-kind donations:

Monetary donations:

Comments / other information:

Please forward to:

And really people, the citizens of this country need anything to help, from housing to cheap health insurance.

Where are Burma's Neighbors?

From Rule of Lords, by Awzar Thi:

In the worst affected areas, flattened villages and ruined crops are still littered with bodies and not a single person has turned up to assist. Many places, such as Laputta, remain partly submerged and the numbers of the dead and missing not yet entered into the daily rising tallies.

So where are Burma's neighbors? Not long after the storm struck, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation's secretary-general, the former foreign minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan, called on the other nine member states to give generously, and hoped the same of its partners, which include heavyweights China, South Korea and Japan.

His appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears...

More here.

Update: Aid Starts Trickling Into Myanmar

Over the past couple of days, the primary narrative being spun in the media is the frustration level of various agencies in being allowed to bring aid into Myanmar, both in terms of supplies and personnel. As of this morning (Thursday, 5/8) relief aid is starting to trickle into the chaotic situation in Yangon.

It's surprising that organizations who never had a presence on the ground in Myanmar expect to crash the borders, good intentions or not. Regardless of what the world community thinks of the government in Myanmar, there isn't a country in the world which would just throw open their borders, regardless of the scope of a natural disaster, without vetting the groups who wish to help. That's simple national security in any country. I would expect that's even more true for a reclusive and paranoid government such as that of the Shwe regime. What's surprising is that media reporters such as CBS News' Celia Hatton are surprised:

"They're suspicious of the motives of NGO's and the U.S. government and that is not going to change," said Hatton. "Also many people believe that the military regime wants to get political credit for distributing aid itself so it has asked for help but it wants to be seen as giving the aid directly to the people and it wants to be able to get the thanks from the Burmese people for doing so."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, many countries offered immediate and tangible assistance, among them Cuba (medical support) and Venezuela (water purification and portable power plants). The Bush administration refused to accept the offers of aid from either country, even as the residents of New Orleans perched on roofs for days, and were unable to get even the most basic assistance from U.S. government rescue teams.

NGOs who have an established presence in Myanmar do not appear to be having significant issues with access to the country (though getting to the remote areas of the Irrawaddy delta that were hardest hit is understandably difficult). The bottom line is that if I was running an NGO that wanted to assist, but didn't have the established relationships in Myanmar, I'd be working to partner with those agencies that already have boots on the ground. It only makes sense. Time is precious at this point, and "blame assignment" is counter-productive. It would seem that efforts are better spent working channels that are already open, rather than getting involved in petty agency turf wars.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Myanmar Death Toll May Exceed 100,000

As we witnessed with the Indian Ocean tsunami, early estimates of casualties are notoriously unreliable, and a final toll from Cyclone Nargis on Myanmar may never be known. The top U.S. envoy in the country is now estimating that the death toll may exceed 100,000. From CNN:

"The information we are receiving indicates over 100,000 deaths," the U.S. Charge D'Affaires in Yangon, Shari Villarosa, said on a conference call.

The U.S. figure is almost five times more than the 22,000 the Myanmar government has estimated...

...95 percent of the buildings in the delta region were destroyed when Cyclone Nargis battered the area late Friday into Saturday.

Based on the same data, 70,000 people are missing in the Irrawaddy Delta, which has a population of nearly six million people, Villarosa said. The official Myanmar government figure for the missing is 41,000.

Little aid has reached the area since Nargis hit, and on Wednesday crowds of hungry survivors stormed reopened shops in the devastated Irrawaddy delta...

From Rule of Lords: "Only three in ten are alive." :

One of the areas worst affected by the cyclone was Laputta, in the Irrawaddy Delta. A resident of the township speaking to Yoma 3 News (Thailand) said that,

“The township has 16 village tracts. There are at least five villages per tract, and over 200 villages in total. People coming from the villages said that out of these villagers, for every ten, only around three are alive.”

According to Yoma 3 sources, although the government has put the official death toll in Laputta at over a thousand it is in fact much higher than that and to date no help has arrived...

More to come.

NGO Access to Myanmar

I've received several emails and comments over the past few days asking how NGOs can get into Myanmar to assist, given the difficulty in obtaining entry visas. While I don't have a direct answer, my experience with Hurricane Andrew in the U.S. is probably somewhat instructive. In order to get into S. Florida with relief supplies, I had to work through an established agency already in the area (Catholic Relief Services) and bring documentation that the relief supplies I was transporting were destined for that organization. It was the only way I could be assured of getting through the roadblocks and demonstrate to local authorities that the truck I was driving was legit. And this was in the U.S. I'm sure that those who responded to Katrina could tell similar stories.

There's no question that this approach (working through an established agency) should ease the difficulty of access to Myanmar, because much of the disaster response staging by NGOs appears to be occurring in Bangkok, Thailand where most NGOs in the region are based. While the government of Myanmar was initially very reluctant to issue visas to relief organizations, there are several agencies that have longer term relationships in Myanmar for ongoing work, and contact with any of those organizations would certainly expedite acceptance of offers of assistance (either monetary donations or actual on-the-ground efforts).

One such agency (Thirst-Aid) was profiled yesterday; contact information below. Another is Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, which has been working in Myanmar for many years. They've conducted a quick "needs assessment", and are dispatching teams to the areas most affected:

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have so far been able to assess all areas in the townships of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and are in the process of trying to assess areas outside of Yangon that we suspect may have been harder hit. For humanitarian actors it is essential to have unrestricted and immediate access to all affected populations and regions in order to assess needs and react accordingly.

MSF teams in Yangon began setting up a first emergency response, including distribution of food and plastic sheeting, and water chlorination. In Daala and Twante, two townships with a total population of 300,000, MSF teams witnessed the destruction of 80 percent of houses in certain pockets and up to meter-high flood waters. Under these circumstances infectious diseases such as cholera can spread easily. In these two areas MSF is organizing a first emergency response by distributing food, water, and first necessity items for 5,000 people...

Please visit their website for more information.

U.N. Liason Office (Geneva)

Rue du Lac, 12
Case Postale 6090
1211 Geneva 6
Tel: +41 (22) 849.84.00
Fax: +41 (22) 849.84.04
U.N. Liason Office (New York City)

333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Fax: (212) 679-7016

Make a donation toll-free at 1-888-392-0392
24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Email contact form.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Water Everywhere, Not a Drop to Drink - ThirstAid on the Ground in Myanmar

There are some NGOs that exist on name recognition alone, and then there are those who toil in relatively thankless obscurity. Thirst-Aid is one of those organizations. They've been on the ground in Myanmar for quite some time, bringing self-sufficiency and clean, sanitary water to areas unreached by modern water purification.

Now, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, groups like Thirst-Aid are on the ground, in the country, and leading the way in terms of access and reaching those who need immediate assistance.

From a Thirst-Aid press release today:

Thirst-Aid Is On the Ground Distributing Water Filters

May 6, 2008 – Disaster has struck again. In Myanmar a cyclone has left 22,000 people reported dead with hundreds of thousands more now lacking access to the basic necessities of life; food, shelter, and water. While nations across the globe offer to help, their aid organizations are being held back by the red tape of a despotic government. But there is hope. One organization is uniquely positioned to offer aid, and in fact they already are.

"Thirst-Aid cut its teeth on disaster relief. We were some of the first people on the scene after the 2004 tsunami struck the coast of Thailand. We distributed over 6,000 water filters to marginalized people in a matter of months. Here in Myanmar, we have an entire nation of marginalized people, and a government that has tied its own hands and is unable to respond effectively." Curt Bradner, Thirst-aid's International Project Director explains.

While the UN, UNICEF, Red Cross and other larger aid organizations are being held back by a complex visa process, Thirst-Aid is already inside Myanmar and ready to begin distribution of their unique point of use water filters. "We have one team member, Bryan Berenguer, inside Myanmar. He was there when the cyclone struck and put out the call for us to respond." But Thirst-Aid's position is stronger than just having a person on the inside. "We were granted multiple use entry/exit visas last year. That basically means we can come and go as we please. The rest of our team is in the air and will be inside Myanmar Thursday morning to help ramp up production of filters and oversee the distribution." Says Cathy Bradner, Thirst-Aid's International Project Coordinator

Because Thirst-Aid relies almost completely on local citizens for its workforce and management it is able to respond immediately and effectively to this crisis. "We already have local distribution networks in place, our factories are run by local citizens with government oversight. These people already know what to do, and they're doing it. We are just going in to lend organizational and financial support and make sure that our response is effective."

Eugene residents and Thirst-Aid's International directors, Curt and Cathy Bradner, are on a plane bound for chaos. They are reaching out to the citizens of Eugene in this time of crisis to help raise emergency funds. "$20 can get water to an entire family for a year. $100 can supply a school or monastery, $500 can supply a hospital, $1000 can get water to a small village. In this time of crisis we can really make a difference."

For more information regarding Thirst-Aid and their Disaster Relief inside Myanmar or to donate emergency relief funds contact Bree Ervin, Public Relations Manager, Thirst-Aid at or 541-517-5141

They didn't wait for funding. They didn't wait for Washington to tell them it was OK to go and assist. The folks from Thirst-Aid got on a damn plane, headed to the disaster area from the U.S., and will be distributing water filtration systems by the time the sun goes down in Yangon on Thursday.

Give them a call and make a donation. They could sure use the assist.

Bree Ervin

Bogalay Hit Hard / New NGOs Added to List

From CNN:

The destruction of Myanmar's deadly cyclone spared few.

The evidence was everywhere in Bogalay Tuesday -- the estimated 240 km/hr (150mph) winds spared only four of the 369 homes in a village here.

The storm, Myanmar state media estimate more than 22,000 are dead and 41,000 missing, left few and little in the township untouched. Many have been left with nothing.

Almost half of the total death toll could have come from Bogalay, according to an estimate by China's state run news agency Xinhua.

Victims' bodies were being dropped into the area's rivers on Tuesday.

Survivors sat in roofless homes, parasols their only protection from the rain that continued to fall...

Also, two more relief organizations, AmeriCares and Save the Children, have been added to the NGO list in the right column...

Death Toll Now Above 22,000

From Associated Press:

The cyclone death toll soared above 22,000 on Tuesday and more than 41,000 others were missing as foreign countries mobilized to rush in aid after the country's deadliest storm on record, state radio reported.

Up to 1 million people may be homeless after Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, early Saturday. Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out, the World Food Program said.

Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads and roofless houses ringed by large sheets of water in the Irrawaddy River delta region, which is regarded as Myanmar's rice bowl.

"From the reports we are getting, entire villages have been flattened and the final death toll may be huge," Mac Pieczowski, who heads the International Organization for Migration office in Yangon, said in a statement...

I've received some inquiries regarding offers of on the ground assistance. At this point, the best advice I can offer is to contact one of the following agencies in Thailand:

19 Phra Atit Road
Chanasongkram, Phra Nakorn
Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Tel: (66) (2) 3569499 / 2805931

International Red Cross
Tel: (66) (2) 2510424 / 2515245 / 2512947
Fax: (66) (2) 2553064

As I learn more, or other agencies contact me, I'll post more information.

Update: I've been informed that the previous email address for the ICRC in Thailand was incorrect. It's been corrected.

Myanmar Photos

A tremendous slideshow here - photos were apparently taken in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone show the level of devastation.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Toll Exceeds 15,000

The degree of the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is expanding by the hour. CNN reports:

YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- The death toll from the Myanmar cyclone is more than 15,000 people, Myanmar's government has said.

Survivors were facing their third night without electricity in the aftermath of the historic cyclone that also clogged roads with thousands of downed trees.

Diplomats were summoned to a government briefing Monday as the reclusive southeast Asian country's ruling military junta issued a rare appeal for international assistance in the face of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

A state of emergency was declared across much of the country following the 10-hour storm that left swathes of destruction in its wake.

The death toll of more than 15,000, official sources told the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, makes the weekend cyclone the deadliest natural disaster to hit Myanmar in recent history, according to figures compiled by a U.N.-funded disaster database...

In the early hours after any natural disaster, the scope of the situation is never clear. What's clear about this particular situation is that no one really yet has a handle on the degree of devastation in Myanmar, particularly in the outlying regions where access and communication are all but impossible.

Relief Organizations

The following NGOs are in the process of providing relief assistance to the hardest hit areas of Myanmar. I make no recommendations regarding any of the listed NGOs other than noting those that I've personally dealt with in the past:

World Vision:

The government of Myanmar has invited World Vision to provide assistance in the form of zinc sheets, tents, tarpaulins and medicine. The agency is coordinating with authorities to explore an airlift of emergency supplies into the country from one of its global warehouses.

World Vision assessment teams have been deployed to the hardest-hit areas to determine the most urgent needs. The agency is already providing clothing (sarongs and t-shirts) as well as tarpaulins and blankets to 100 households in the capital, along with 10,000 kg of rice and 7,000 liters of water.

World Vision estimates that up to 2 million people may be affected by the cyclone. The organisation has several community development programmes in areas hit by the path of the storm...

Direct Relief:

Direct Relief has contacted partners in Thailand and other neighboring countries, some of whom also run programs in Myanmar, to offer assistance to medical relief efforts for people affected by the storm.

The Myanmar government has yet to issue a formal request for international assistance - historically, the country rarely invites outside groups to provide assistance, even in emergencies...

International Rescue Committee

The International Rescue Committee is dispatching an emergency team to Myanmar to rapidly assess needs and lay the groundwork for urgent assistance for people made homeless by the weekend's devastating cyclone.

The IRC team will begin to assemble in Yangon Tuesday.

"The communities hit by the cyclone and the government face enormous challenges in responding to a disaster of this scale," says Greg Beck, the IRC's Asia regional director, speaking from Chiang Mai, Thailand. "With our years of emergency experience, we're hopeful that we can help bring critical assistance to the people of Myanmar." ...

American Burma Buddhist Association:

Power was out today including the largest city, Yangon, and drinking water was contaminated in the city of 5 million. The gas price was $5 for a gallon in March and after cyclone the gas price is more than $10 now. People need food, medical supplies, construction equipment, clothes, home and more...


UNICEF teams will make their initial assessment in Yangon, Pathein and Bago. Supplies such as water purification tablets, food and emergency health kits and shelter materials will be urgently needed.

“UNICEF has pre-stocked supplies in parts of the country and these can be easily mobilized,” Ms Egge said. “Of course, it won’t be enough. The latest figures are so high that we will … bring in additional supplies...

The following mainstream international organizations will most certainly be involved in Myanmar relief efforts, and I suggest keeping apprised of those efforts:

Oxfam International
International Red Cross / Red Crescent

Please check back for further updates.

Two Videos from Myanmar...

Information on direct relief efforts to follow...

Bush Administration Response

Listening to the stream of First Lady Laura Bush's response to this disaster, I'm infuriated. Her screed is more rooted in politics than humanitarian relief. Thousands of people have died, and she's more concerned about the "regime" in Myanmar and any relief effort serving to prop up the regime.

The U.S. government is apparently offering no aid at this time other than a $250,000 stipend to assess immediate needs.

More when the transcript the news conference is posted on the White House website.

Update: Here's a link to Laura Bush's remarks on the situation in Myanmar. It's pretty cold.

Cyclone Nargis - An Asian Version of Katrina

A couple of years back, when several Indian Ocean countries were devastated by a tsunami and hundreds of thousands died, Americans responded with an outpouring of donations and NGO assistance. News is starting to trickle out of Myanmar/Burma of another disaster in the region - an estimated 10,000 people have died, and many are missing from a tropical cyclone that made a more or less direct hit on the capitol city of Rangoon over the weekend.

Here's some info from Dr. Jeff Masters at Wundergound (the best $10 you'll ever spend on an online weather site):

A disaster of horrific proportions has befallen Myanmar, where the death toll is now over 4,000, with thousands more missing, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Nargis--a popular woman's name in India--is the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclone ever to hit Myanmar (Burma). The storm hit the coast of Myanmar Friday night as borderline Category 3/Category 4 cyclone, with winds of 130-135 mph. After passing over the low-lying and densely populated Irrawaddy River delta region, Nargis made a direct hit on the capital city of Rangoon (Yangon), as a Category 1 storm with top winds of 80 mph. Winds at the Yangon airport hit 69 mph, gusting to 138 mph, at 5:30am local time on Saturday. The anemometer failed at that point, and the winds likely rose higher.

Myanmar Cyclone Nargis

(Figure 1. Population density of Myanmar, with Nargis' track superimposed. Nargis passed over some of the most densely populated regions of the country. Image credit: Columbia University's CIESEN.)

However, it was the storm surge, not the winds, that was the big killer in Nargis. The storm tracked over the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta region, which is highly vulnerable to storm surge deaths due to its low elevation, dense population, and limited hurricane awareness of the people. I could find no records of a major tropical cyclone ever making a direct hit on the Irrawaddy River delta. The ocean bottom off the coast of Myanmar is quite shallow (Figure 2). A large area of Continental Shelf waters with depth 200 meters or less extends far out to sea. This is a situation similar to the Gulf of Mexico, and is ideal for allowing large surge surge to pile up over the shallow waters. The counter-clockwise circulation of winds around Nargis likely built up a storm surge of at least 4 meters (13 feet), that then smashed ashore into the Irrawaddy Delta region, drowning thousands of people...

It almost sounds like an Asian version of Hurricane Katrina, without the levees. Here's a photo gallery of the disaster.

Not surprisingly, it's being reported that a humanitarian crisis is quickly developing. In a third world country which has received much criticism from the U.S. government, it's unlikely that a tremendous amount of aid will be forthcoming from the Bush administration.

This kind of a situation, though, is where the U.S. government can not only shine, but truly make an impact in recovery operations. By doing so, the good will generated can make a difference in social change within the country.

Beyond whatever response the U.S. government provides, there are several NGOs that will most certainly be accepting donations in support of the victims of Cyclone Nargis. If you'd like to assist, try starting with this list of NGOs that responded to the 2004 tsunami disaster. We'll have a more complete list later today.