People queue for drinking water at a distribution point in Sittwe on May 17, 2023, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha's landfall. (AFP)

Rakhine residents hunt for water as UN asks junta for access


Residents of Myanmar’s cyclone-ravaged Rakhine State capital queued for rice and drinking water on Wednesday as the United Nations negotiated with the internationally isolated junta for access to hard-hit areas.

Cyclone Mocha tore through Myanmar and Bangladesh on Sunday, bringing lashing rain and winds of 195 kilometres per hour that collapsed buildings and turned streets into rivers. 

The storm killed at least 81 people across Myanmar, according to statements given by local leaders and officials to AFP journalists and state media tallies.   

Residents in the Rakhine capital Sittwe queued for small tanks of drinking water after the cyclone stopped production at purification plants that supply potable water in the city of some 150,000 inhabitants.  

“We stored some water but after two days there is none left in our home,” said Ko Htun, who was queueing under the noon sun for water being handed out by a civil society organisation.

“Rich people can afford to buy water but poor people can’t,” he told AFP.

Aye Hla, another Sittwe resident, queued for rice being given out by the World Food Programme at a monastery in the city.

“I haven’t eaten for four days,” the 47-year-old said.

“I don’t have bowls, plates or a home and I don’t even have clothes to change. I’m here to ask for rice as my family is starving.”

Hundreds of bags of rice had been airlifted to Sittwe and a naval vessel carrying rice, communication equipment and other aid was expected to arrive late Wednesday, according to the Global New Light of Myanmar.

‘Hold on’

A “humanitarian catastrophe” was unfolding in Myanmar, the United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator for the country said on Tuesday.

Negotiations with Myanmar’s military junta for access to cyclone-affected areas were “ongoing”, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has said.

An OCHA spokesperson did not respond to questions on the discussions or whether access had been granted for UN teams to visit cyclone-affected areas, including camps housing displaced Rohingya. 

“Offers from the international community for providing aid have been accepted,” state media said Tuesday.

“But, relief and rehabilitation tasks must be done through existing united strength,” said the Global New Light of Myanmar.

After cyclone Nargis killed at least 138,000 people in Myanmar in 2008, the previous junta was accused of blocking emergency aid and initially refusing to grant access to humanitarian workers and supplies.

Rakhine state is home to around 600,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by many in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and freedom of movement.  

Camps housing displaced Rohingya around Sittwe were ravaged by the storm, with residents swept away and homes destroyed. 

The leader of one camp outside Sittwe said on Wednesday they were still waiting for help from outside.  

“No organisation nor the government aid arrived to us yet because the bridges on the way to our camp are broken,” he told AFP.

The camp leader said authorities told them they were trying to reach the area and that they should boil any water they can get and drink that.

“We might be able to hold on for two days more,” he said.

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