Natural disasters made worse


Saturday, May 10
The scale of death and suffering right now in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is incomprehensible.

Even more incomprehensible are the callous acts of a military junta that seems more interested in holding on to power than in helping its citizens in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

The best guess right now is 70,000 Burmese are dead and 30,000 are missing or presumed dead from the cyclone that struck early on the morning of May 3. The storm surge, fed by 120 mph winds in the Irrawaddy delta, was so massive that it sent a wall of water as high as 12 feet as far as 25 miles inland.

It was reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina -- a wind-whipped storm surge flooding low-lying land. And like the damage in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, man had as much of a hand in the destruction of the Irrawaddy as nature did.

Most of the mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy have been cut down over the past decade or so to make way for shrimp farms and rice paddies. Without the protective vegetation that might have eased the effects of a wall of water sweeping over land barely above sea level, tens of thousands needlessly died.

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And as with Katrina, the people of the Irrawaddy delta have been victimized by a government that doesn't particularly see the urgency of saving lives.

The ruling junta did little to notify the Burmese people that a major storm was coming. Nor did it do much to get people out of harm's way. Survivors say they had no warning at all that the storm was coming -- until it was too late.

That's bad enough. Worse are the delays by the military rulers in allowing international aid to enter Burma. It appears that the people who have controlled the country since 1962, and who have crushed all attempts at restoring democracy, are more concerned with making sure there is a vote today on a planned constitutional referendum than in helping those in need.

So, an impoverished country ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world will get even more impoverished. The Irrawaddy delta region produces 65 percent of Burma's rice, 80 percent of its farmed seafood, 50 percent of its poultry and 40 percent of its pork. Now, the villages and farms that produced this food are gone. It may take years for them to come back.

International aid is trickling in, but the Burmese government has needlessly delayed the process. And the country that can do the most in the fastest time -- the United States -- is still being barred. That's because the U.S. government has strongly criticized the junta's suppression of pro-democracy activists. For now, aid is piling up in Thailand, waiting for a go-ahead.

The United Nations is doing what it can to get the Burmese government to concentrate on humanitarian aid rather than on politics, but it's not having a lot of luck. People are dying because of this latest example of how a natural disaster can become even worse with the inaction of a government that is supposed to help.


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