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Crisis In Burma

Crisis In BurmaPeter Walker of Tufts' Feinstein International Center talks about the challenges facing the country of Burma in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.09.08] On May 2, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Burma (also known as Myanmar), causing widespread devastation and a death toll believed to approach 100,000 individuals. Efforts by the international community to provide assistance amid the resulting humanitarian crisis, however, have been stymied by the Southeast Asian nation's repressive military regime.

"The absolute critical issue is access," says Peter Walker, head of the Feinstein International Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and an expert in international disaster relief. "If you can't have access to a population, you can't help."

Before coming to Tufts in 2002, Walker headed the Bangkok regional office for International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, having worked for the organization in various capacities since 1990.

E-News spoke to Walker about the challenges facing the Burmese people as they struggle to recover from the storm and its after-effects.

What is the scope of the humanitarian crisis in Burma after the cyclone?

Water is the primary concern. You can exist for two to three weeks without food if you are reasonably nourished. You can't exist for much more than about three days without water. Add to that that the only water that is available to you is dirty. If you drink dirty water, you get sick.

Clean water means you've got to have tanks to store it in and ways to distribute it. It's a big logistics operation. It needs a lot of equipment, a lot of manpower and access. People can survive on about five liters of water of day. If you do the math, it's heavy stuff.Maybe you can drill fresh wells. But that takes time. You have to move the drills in, and you have to connect them to pipes. Or you'll find a water source and you'll bring it in on trucks. Think about what the roads are. These are like the little paths we have through the state forests here. And now they've been washed away or covered in filth or covered in debris.

Second is health and communicable diseases. What kills you in these things is getting diarrhea. Oral rehydration salts get all the salts and sugar back into your body, but you've got to have clean water to mix them with. So you're back to water. Sanitation has to be replaced. And shelter. It's partly a physical thing. If you've got at least something you can call home, you survive better.

What are the challenges for aid organizations and governments looking to provide assistance?

This government is not a government of the people. This is a repressive military regime that operates slave labor on its own people in its gemstone mines. It has basically snubbed the international community in all attempts to negotiate. It's a country that has oil. It's a country that has gemstones. It's a country that has commercial relations with the outside world. There are potentials for putting pressures on it in that sense-basically, you don't get trade. You could get sanctions, but they don't come quickly. And in a crisis like this, the first week of response is the most important.

In the last five years, there has been a development within international diplomatic circles of a notion, because of the way international law is framed, that not only do states have a duty to abide by it but they have a duty to ensure that others do-the idea of a right to protection. There are even phrases in UN resolutions which essentially say that other states have a duty to intervene if a country consistently denies the rights of its people. That's beginning to be talked about now.

In past incidences of humanitarian disasters in tightly controlled nations, what has the aid situation been like?

burmalrg2Most governments have opened up. The Soviet government, during the huge earthquake in Armenia in 1988, opened up-the first time ever the USSR allowed international assistance. Iran, at the height of Revolutionary Guard period in 1991, had a major earthquake and allowed international search and rescue teams in. We can look at North Korea over the last ten years-we couldn't get a more repressive regime-and yet it has allowed international aid in during its famine crisis. In all those instances, the international aid has been at pains not to interfere in the politics of the country but to deliver assistance. Even in Darfur today, it's on and off, but there's access.

[The situation in Burma] is really unusual. The calculation they're going to be doing in their minds is, "If I don't assist, am I going to feed insurrection? Basically, the population will rebel and I won't be able to keep the rebellion down and stay in power. If I let international assistance in, I'll look like an idiot, we'll no longer be respected as a government and our control will start to be eroded." Where they seem to be coming out now is, "Even if they do rebel, we're a sufficiently strong government and they are sufficiently weak. We'll be able to put it down."

How will the political situation in Burma impact the long-term disaster relief needs of the nation?

It's horrendous. A lot of the land is severely damaged. Crop yields will be down for the next couple of years. You're probably going to need a food assistance program. You need to build those roads. You need to help people rebuild. And that's just getting you back to where you were. Then you would do what Bangladesh has done. They have the same cyclones but what they have done is put in place a system of cyclone shelters, big concrete structures on stilts, that people can go to when a cyclone's coming. And that's all tied to a cyclone warning system which works from satellite imagery right down to about 40,000 volunteers with megaphones down on the seafront who can tell people cyclone is coming so they know to go to the shelter. That requires a government that has a sense that it's worthwhile doing something for its people. You don't get that with the Burmese government, with the junta there.

What is the best that can be hoped for out of this situation currently?

I think it is continual diplomatic pressure on them to open the borders to allow international humanitarian relief flights and goods in. I know the Burmese Red Cross. Yes, it's dominated by government people, but there are good individuals in there and they have a structure and they can do something. So even if you don't get the international systems, deliver through the local structures.

Previous coverage:

Satellite imagery courtesy of NASA

Interview by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

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