Desperation in flood-hit Myanmar as death toll climbs

Desperation in flood-hit Myanmar as death toll climbs
Flood-affected residents (L) commute through floodwaters on a raft in Kalay, upper Myanmar's Sagaing region on August 3, 2015
PHOTO: AFP

YANGON - Tens of thousands of people huddled Wednesday in monasteries and other makeshift evacuation centres in remote areas of Myanmar cut off by deadly floods, as rescuers struggled to deliver desperately needed aid.

Heavy monsoon downpours have caused devastation across large parts of South and Southeast Asia in recent weeks, claiming hundreds of lives and displacing millions.

In Myanmar, international aid efforts accelerated Wednesday following a government appeal for help.

The impoverished nation has seen resources severely stretched by the crisis, which has spread across 12 of its 14 states and regions.

Tens of thousands of people remain stranded in rugged and mountainous regions after relentless rains caused flash floods and triggered landslides sweeping away homes, roads and bridges.

Floods have now begun to flow southwards, inundating some areas around the Irrawaddy river with roof-high waters, according to an AFP photographer.

The official death toll stands at 69 with more than 260,000 affected, although this is expected to rise.

The floods severed communications across large areas of the country, which is roughly the size of France.

But information has now started to filter back from remote regions pointing to the scale of the disaster.

Fast moving crisis

The hilltop Chin state capital of Hakha, home to about 40,000 people, is still only accessible by helicopter a week after a series of landslides saw walls of saturated earth collapse onto homes and roads.

"The mountainsides collapsed," Jacob Thang, of the local rescue committee, told AFP by telephone.

About 6,600 people were taking refuge in temporary shelters either too afraid to go home, or with no house to return to, according to Thang.

"Many people are traumatised. People are really afraid of more rain," he said, adding illness had started to spread.

While the state capital has food for several more days, Chin activists raised the alarm over the fate of even more remote communities.

"Food could run out very soon. It's an emergency," Dal Sian Amm, of Chin Natural Resources Watch Group, told AFP.

In cyclone-battered Rakhine state, where at least 41 people have died, whole communities remain cut off even after floods retreated, with waterways clogged with debris and roads waterlogged.

Medical charity MSF northern Rakhine - populated mainly by Muslim Rohingya - has witnessed "massive destruction" of homes and contamination of sources of drinking water.

Attention is now turning to the country's low-lying Irrawaddy delta region as deluges from the north drain to the sea through the country's rivers.

Children, hospital patients and the elderly have been evacuated from the town of Nyaungdon.

As evening fell Wednesday, residents and soldiers watched the swollen Irrawaddy river warily from the embankment, which has been reinforced with piles of sandbags.

"We are praying nothing happens," said Ye Min Aung, whose shop is near the riverbank.

As the relief effort ground into gear, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Myanmar painted a picture of a complicated, fast-moving situation.

"Some areas remain inaccessible and new areas are being immersed as the floods move southwards," said IFRC's Udaya Regmi.

'Extraordinary losses'

US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed his condolences over the "extraordinary losses of people in the floods", promising US help.

The current quasi-civilian government has admitted it has struggled to reach remote communities, in contrast to the approach by the former ruling generals, who refused outside help for weeks after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, which left 140,000 dead or missing.

Myanmar military helicopters and commercial airlines have helped to deliver aid provided by the UN's World Food Programme.

WFP has said more than 200,000 people are in need of immediate food assistance.

In a nation where philanthropy is deeply woven into the social fabric, ordinary people have organised rock concerts and taken to the streets to raise money for those affected, while others have come up with flood information apps.

Across the region, hundreds have died and more than two million people have been affected, with India and Pakistan bearing the brunt of the devastation, while Vietnam and Nepal have also seen scores killed.

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