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Safe water can make difference between life and death in post-cyclone Myanmar

© UNICEF Myanmar/2008/Win Naing
UNICEF Myanmar staff are moving essential supplies to the most needy in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, 8 May 2008 – Three million water-purification tablets are on their way to Myanmar to help families in the Irrawaddy Delta cope with the potentially deadly after-effects of Cyclone Nargis.

The United Nations says the situation is becoming increasingly precarious, with up to 1 million people affected. There are fears that the death toll could reach 100,000.

According to UNICEF Myanmar Officer in Charge Jaunita Vasquez, assessment teams have witnessed widespread flooding and damage, with trees uprooted and homes and schools destroyed. There is little safe water or electricity, children are on the streets and the rice harvest has been ruined.

“People have lost everything,” she said.

Although the crisis is only a few days old, UNICEF staff report hearing about cases of diarrhoea resulting from unsafe water and sanitation conditions. Children under five are particularly at risk.

Water purification supplies

© UNICEF Myanmar
Survivors of Myanmar's killer cyclone are critically in need of clean safe water to prevent outbreaks of diarhoea.

“It’s a life and death situation for people right now,” said UNICEF Senior Emergency Water Advisor Paul Sherlock. “If you don’t have clean water, your body very quickly goes down. You’ll catch diarrhoea, your children will catch diarrhoea. Children are very, very vulnerable.”

In addition to medical supplies and oral rehydration tablets, UNICEF Myanmar has distributed about 15,000 kits that enable families to use small amounts of chlorine to treat their water. Twenty thousand more kits are being flown in from Dubai.

The water-purification tablets that are also now in transit will back up the family kits.

“This morning, 3 million tablets went out by air,” said UNICEF Chief of Knowledge Management Rudolph Schwenk, speaking from UNICEF’s main supply hub in Copenhagen. “They will arrive tomorrow morning in Myanmar. They will be used for purifying 3 million litres of contaminated water.”

‘Looking to repair the damage’

UNICEF is leading the water and sanitation relief effort in Myanmar. Because of the enormous logistical challenges of shipping large quantities of safe water – with the port at Yangon damaged and roads in ruins – tablets and kits are the most practical option at the moment.

“Tablets are easy to transport and they’re easy to get out. They are, in this particular crisis, one of the ways of getting to people,” Mr. Sherlock explained. He added, however, that UNICEF would move in to provide further support and repair damaged infrastructure as soon as possible.

“Whether that’s cleaning out wells, whether that’s repairing hand pumps or piped water supplies,” he said, “the main thing now is to save people. In the next few weeks, we’ll be looking to repair the damage.”






7 May 2008:
Executive Director Ann M. Veneman discusses UNICEF's priorities in caring for children in cyclone-ravaged Myanmar.
 VIDEO high | low


6 May 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on UNICEF's emergency response to Cyclone Nargis. Footage courtesy of Reuters.
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