Cyclone Nargis, the tropical storm that struck Myanmar last weekend, has killed more than 15,000 people. The casualty count may go up as authorities reach hard-hit islands and villages in the Irrawaddy delta — Myanmar’s major rice-producing region — that seem to have borne the brunt of the cyclone.
Packed winds of over 120 miles per hour bore down from the Bay of Bengal to hit the Myanmar coast, sending the sea surging as much as 12 feet. This is probably the worst disaster in the region since the killer tsunami of 2004 swept across the Indian Ocean.
The appeal for outside assistance from Myanmar’s ruling generals may seem unusual, given their long-standing suspicion of international organisations and aid agencies. But they have clearly no choice but to mobilise for a disaster the extent of which is yet to be fully clear.
The most important thing now is for international humanitarian aid, including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine and water-purifying tablets to reach Myanmar without delay. And while at it, the generals should ask themselves how well they were prepared for such a disaster. After all, it is not uncommon for Myanmar to be hit by cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal between April and November.
From all accounts, despite early warning systems predicting catastrophic storm surges, little effort was made to warn or guide people about taking shelter. Maybe Myanmar could work with countries like India that are in tropical cyclone ‘basins’ to benefit from cyclone warning procedures and limit the scale of disasters like this.
In the wake of the Asian tsunami, for instance, an extensive early warning system was established in the Pacific region. Disaster management experts could teach people in vulnerable areas the importance of building homes to withstand wind and flood damage, storing emergency food supplies, and establishing local early warning systems for impending storms. Of course, a warning system by itself is not enough to reduce the damage, since it’s the action taken after receiving the warning that determines the extent of devastation.
The Asian tsunami and disasters elsewhere, like the hurricane Katrina in the US and the typhoon in China, underline the importance of response and recovery plans for natural calamities.