International aid agencies mustered everything from anti-snake venom kits to plastic roofing today, warning that a second wave of deaths would follow the Burma cyclone disaster unless the military regime let in more aid quickly.
The Red Cross estimated that the cyclone death toll in Burma could be as high as 128,000 – a much higher figure than a tally by the government, which continued to issue few visas to foreign aid experts, and all but shut them out of the hardest-hit area.
The grim forecast came as heavy rains drenched the devastated Irrawaddy River delta, disrupting aid operations already struggling to reach up to 2.5 million people in urgent need of food, water and shelter.
“Another couple of days exposed to those conditions can only lead to worsening health conditions and compound the stress people are living in,” said Shantha Bloemen, a spokeswoman for Unicef.
Burma’s government issued a revised casualty toll yesterday, saying 38,491 were known dead and 27,838 missing.
However, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said its estimate put the number of dead between 68,833 and 127,990. The Geneva-based body said the range came from a compilation based on other estimates from 22 different organisations, including the Burma Red Cross Society, and on media reports.
Even though the figures seemed precise, spokesman Matthew Cochrane said they were not based on body counts, but were only rough estimates designed to provide Red Cross donors and partner organisations with an idea of the numbers being discussed within the aid community.
United Nations officials have said there could be more than 100,000 dead.
The Red Cross estimated the number of people needing help after Cyclone Nargis surged over the low-lying delta on May 3 at between 1.64 and 2.51 million.
Aid agencies were preparing or moving in a wide-range of relief supplies including material for temporary shelters, rice, drinking water, kitchen utensils and medicines including 2,000 anti-snake bite kits. The UN World Health Organisation said an increase in snake bites was feared in coming days.
Burma has so far mostly limited the few international aid workers in the country to Rangoon, the country’s biggest city, and used police to keep foreigners out of the delta. However, it granted approval for a Thai medical team to visit the delta as early as tomorrow.
It said it would accept 160 relief workers from India, China, Bangladesh and Thailand, though it was not clear if anyone but the Thais would be permitted to go to the delta.
In New York, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes welcomed that decision, but said it was not enough and demanded that Burma open up the delta region fully to outsiders.
Today the UN said that along with the 160 Asians, an emergency rapid assessment team from the Association of South-east Asian Nations, or Asean, would head into Burma within 24 hours to assess the most critical needs.
US-based World Vision, which has long-standing ties with Burma, said only two of its 21 visa applications had been approved.
The junta has insisted Burma can handle the disaster on its own – a stance that appears to stem not from its abilities but its deep suspicion of most foreigners, who have frequently criticised its human rights abuses.
Amanda Pitt of the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs said the disaster reponse must be speeded up. “It is clearly inadequate, and we do not want to see a second wave of deaths as a result of that not being scaled up,” she said.
Burma’s prime minister, Lt Gen Thein Sein, told visiting Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej that the government was in control of the situation.
Mr Samak said after returning to Bangkok that the junta gave him a “guarantee” that there were no starvation or disease outbreaks among survivors.
However, critics say the government is woefully lacking in helicopters, trucks and boats as well as expertise to distribute aid to survivors, who have jammed into monasteries and relief centres or are camping outside.
UN agencies and other voluntary groups have been able to reach only 270,000 of the affected people, said Elisabeth Byrs of the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.