YANGON: The toll from flash floods and landslides in Myanmar after days of torrential rain is likely to spike, the UN warned Sunday, as monsoon downpours brought misery to thousands across the region.
At least 27 people have been killed and more than 150,000 affected by flooding in Myanmar in recent days with the government declaring the four worst hit areas in central and western Myanmar as “national disaster-affected regions.”
Scores have also perished in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam following floods and landslides triggered by heavy seasonal rains.
Continued downpours and the inaccessibility of many of the remote regions worst hit by the deluges have hampered rescue work in Myanmar.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Sunday it had been informed by the Myanmar government’s Relief and Resettlement Department that at least 156,000 people have been affected by the floods.
But that figure was likely to be “significantly higher” because many areas “have still not been reached or reported on by assessment teams,” the agency warned.
OCHA said the official death toll of 27 was also likely an underestimate.
“As further information becomes available, this figure is also expected to increase,” the statement said.
The sheer extent of the flooding is testing the government’s limited relief operations.
An official at Myanmar’s social welfare ministry who did not want to be named told AFP Saturday that all but one of the country’s 14 provinces and regions were affected by flash floods with rescue workers “struggling to access flood-hit areas.”
Monsoon rains that are a lifeline for farmers annually strike Myanmar, but the rains and frequent powerful cyclones can also prove deadly, with landslides and flash floods a common occurrence.
In May 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta killing about 140,000 people. The then ruling junta’s slow response to the disaster fueled resentment against the isolated regime and sparked international criticism.
Three years later the army ceded control to a quasi-civilian reformist government and fresh elections are slated for November 8.
The country’s leaders have been keen to show flood relief is a top priority.
State media has run reports on President Thein Sein visiting victims in northwestern Sagaing region while powerful army chief General Min Aung Hlaing flew to flood-hit Rakhine.
Seasonal monsoon rains have also brought death and destruction to other Asian nations.
In Pakistan, flooding has killed 81 people and affected almost 300,000 in the last two weeks. Flash floods in western India have killed 26 people while the Press Trust of India said at least 20 people died over the weekend in a landslide in Manipur state, which borders Myanmar. 36 people have also perished in landslides in Nepal.
Vietnam hit by floods, toxic sludge
Vietnam is struggling to help communities hit by toxic mudslides after torrential rain in a major coal-mining area in northern Quang Ninh province, home to the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay tourist site.
Quang Ninh was last week hit by the heaviest rain recorded in 40 years, with up to 800 millimeters in some areas, causing flooding, landslides and toxic sludge spills from coalmines.
Seventeen people have been killed, including two families in Mong Duong district who were caught in a toxic mudslide on July 26 which buried the entire community in up to two meters of sludge from a nearby mine.
“In one second, mud and rock smashed into my house. We were lucky to escape with our daughter,” To Thi Huyen, 37, a primary school teacher, recalled.
“We have nothing now, as the house and all our assets are in the mud. We don’t know what happens next,” Huyen told AFP.
Huyen and some 200 other affected people are living in an emergency shelter set up by local authorities in the area.
Pham Ngoc Lu, a local official in Mong Duong, said they were doing their best to help the affected communities.
“We’re providing food and other necessities,” he said.
Thousands of hectares of open-face coalmines and multiple coal-fired power plants surround Vietnam’s famed Halong Bay heritage site.
The torrential rain has caused sludge from the mines to spill onto local communities, creating what activists call immediate and ongoing health and environmental hazards.
“We are deeply concerned by the pace of this unfolding disaster and its sheer scale,” said Robert Kennedy, president of Waterkeeper Alliance, an NGO that campaigns for clean drinking water.
At the Mong Duong coal mine, production has been suspended since the rains hit last week. The mine was affected by mudslides, but was not the source of the deluge that hit the nearby community — which came from another coal mine.
Bulldozers and trucks are working through the night to clear the mud at the mine itself, said company official Tran Quang Canh.
“We’re trying to save the mine and recover our production to keep our more than 4,000 laborers employed,” Canh said.
Canh said it would take at least 10 days for part of the mine to be brought back into operation, and a further three months to get the mine back to normal production.
The shutdowns at the coalmines in Quang Ninh have prompted state monopoly Electricity of Vietnam to urge the public to save power.
Usually, Vietnam has at least 18 coal power plants in operation, alongside a number of hydroelectric plants.