"A village mayor said that he hoped that more rains would come, because that at least would wash the putrefying dead bodies back into the rivers."
I think it's fair to say that none of us can imagine the true ordeals the Burmese victims of Cyclone Nargis are suffering, but Peter Rottach from Diakonie has a better idea than most of us.
He's just returned from Myanmar, or Burma, where he was one of the select few Westerners allowed by the secretive military junta to help the survivors.
Like all Western aid workers, Rottach's access to disaster area has been severely limited, but through on the ground contact with local aid workers, he has gained a very valuable insight into the horrendous situation.
Clean water on its way to the cyclone survivors (photo: Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe)
No Clean Water
The villages of the coastal Irrawaddy Delta are typically only 3 or 4 metres above sea-level. Rottach told me of flimsy bamboo huts torn down by the ferocious winds, of entire settlements washed away by the surge whipped up by the storm, of tens of thousands of drowning, of flooded, insect-ridden rice-fields and of survivors huddled together on high patches of ground, sharing their camping ground with the regions venomous snakes.
Even before this natural disaster, the supply of clean water was difficult in the Irrawaddy delta. Were the locals to dig wells, the delta's water would come up salty. So they collect the rain water in reservoirs, which have obviously been overrun and contaminated with salt.
Now the cadavers of drowned animals slowly rot in the water, aggravating the risk of diarrhea and therefore dehydration, particularly among the undernourished children.
Rottach says that a major priority of the aid operation is to provide canisters of clean water.
boats instead of helicopters
Due to the absurd media black-out, it's difficult to know how successful the government's official aid operation is. Journalists who want to travel to the Irrawaddy delta have to pay human traffickers to smuggle them in.
The junta has set up refugee camps, which Rottach believe are adequately if not bountifully providing the survivors with food, water and medicine. However these still only treat the minority; and recent wire reports from Associated Press suggest that the government is now forcibly evacuating them at the cost of more drownings.
There has also been an outpouring of civic concern within Burmese society. Rottach reports of how men and women from Rangoon have filled their cars with food and clothing and have headed to disaster areas to distribute them.
Sadly, this heart-warming example of civic courage is carried out in a rather hap-hazard way, with the helpers sometimes throwing the extra supplies out of moving cars. This means, of course, that the quickest and the strongest get help first, rather than those with the greatest need.
Furthermore, these people risk being arrested for helping. To put together an amateur aid convoy you need to exceed your legal fuel ration. That offense, in Myanmar, can mean a spell in jail.
There are more worries. The Irrawaddy delta is rich in paddy fields. It is, so to speak, the bread basket of the entire country. Yet many paddy fields are still flooded, and even when they finally drain, they will be badly contaminated with salt water. You have to expect lower rice yields this year in a country already blighted by malnutrition.
Diakonie believes that 100,000 of seed will have to be delivered to the area soon to avoid a future hunger crisis. And not any old seeds will do, they have to be the expensive salt-resistant varieties.
And Rottach warns against being led into resignation. However cynical the junta leaders appear, there are ways to get help to the needy. Diakonie plans, with the help of its partners, to distribute 300,000 Euros of aid in the coming weeks, and warns that more is desperately needed.
The key is to provide protection for the future.
Rottach was also active in providing aid to the victims of Cyclone Sidr. That massive cyclone cost 3,000 people their lives, a dreadful figure, but thousands more lives are thought to have been saved by early warning systems, prebuilt cyclone shelters and emergency response planning. All of these were lacking in Myanmar.
Diakonie hopes that when it will have finished providing emergency aid, it can use its partners and contacts to help it provide safeguards against the next natural disaster- which is bound to come.