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Crisis and aid: Q&A with Naho Asai, Programme Officer, WFP Myanmar

Crisis and aid: Q&A with Naho Asai, Programme Officer, WFP Myanmar

WFP rushes to aid the victims of Cyclone Nargis which hit Myanmar on Saturday, May 3rd, 2008. Naho Asai, a WFP Programme Officer in Myanmar, speaks to us about what WFP is doing to get emergency food and supplies to the affected areas as soon as possible.

Question: Although it is not yet clear the total extent of the damages incurred by Cyclone Nargis nor the exact number of fatalities (which has been estimated in the tens of thousands), what do you fear may be the short- and long-term effects of the cyclone on Myanmar?

NA: Right now, we are extremely concerned about acute hunger caused by lack of access to food and potable water, the spread of disease, shelter, and the existence of proper sanitation facilities and medical care in the affected areas. We also need to think about displaced children who might have been separated from their parents. In the long-term, the destruction of infrastructure is a major concern which will have a huge impact on thousands of livelihoods.

Question: How much food has WFP shipped into the country and how much does Myanmar have on hand already?

NA: In stock and in the pipeline, there is a total of 690 metric tons (mt) in Yangon. (110mt have already been dispatched to ‘camps” of displaced people since the cyclone). The plan is to procure a large part in country, especially rice, pulses, and salt. Oil will be imported. We have managed to send in some initial shipments of food and supplies. Today, WFP delivered 7mt of High Energy Biscuits (HEB) to Yangon. A total of 45mt of HEB will have been flown in by tomorrow.

Question: What steps have you taken to expedite assistance and food distribution and how are you coping with the areas which are cut off due to flooding and road damage?

NA: We are renting and procuring boats to access villages via water-way and plan to establish both a field office and a temporary warehouse in Labutta, the main hub in the affected Ayeyarwaddy area. Staff members and essential communication equipment for the field office are on their way. The first trucks with rice will reach the town today, with many more to follow in the coming days.

Question: How many people relied on WFP food assistance in Myanmar before the disaster? How many are we trying to help now?

NA: Cyclone-affected areas were not targeted by WFP operations before the cyclone as they were rice-producing and had food-surpluses. Instead, WFP operated mainly in less food-secure parts of the country, distributing 23,000 metric tons of food in 2007 to 1,230,000 people. WFP plans to establish field offices in the cyclone-affected areas, and for now we plan to provide daily relief rations to those people who are in the most need of assistance.

Question: What sort of a position does this put WFP in budget-wise, at least as it seems today?

NA: WFP’s three-year programme of food assistance in Myanmar is only 30% funded. For this emergency operation, we are pulling funds from the agency’s Immediate Response Account (IRA). The IRA is a special account funded multilaterally to buy and transport food to the victims of a humanitarian crisis such as this one – and will need to be replenished. As the situation in Myanmar further unfolds, we will get a better idea of the resources we will need for a larger operation. WFP and other agencies will be requesting additional funds in order to provide the much-needed assistance to the cyclone-affected areas.

Question: The cyclone hit Myanmar's key rice growing region, the Irrawaddy delta, west of the capital, Rangoon. How significant is this in light of the global food crisis?

NA: The total extent of the damages to the paddy or rice stocks in Ayeyarwaddy remain unknown. Yet most of the summer paddy rice harvest in the area was nearing completion before the cyclone, so we hope the amount damaged will not be excessive. (The summer harvest accounts for 20% of the annual harvest. The main harvest is in October and November). However, there have been unconfirmed reports from Yangon traders that the cyclone affected their warehouses and rice stocks have been damaged, though we don’t know how much. Although they remain below the regional average, the country’s rice prices have increased by 40% in less than a year. Rising food prices are placing more of Myanmar’s estimated five million food insecure people at great risk. WFP’s assistance to reduce the food gap of the most vulnerable segments of the population is providing an essential lifeline.