Desperate survivors of Cyclone Nargis poured out of Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta on Sunday in search of food, water and medicine but aid workers said thousands of them would die if emergency supplies do not get through soon.
Buddhist temples and schools in towns on the outskirts of the storm's trail of destruction are now makeshift refugee centres for women, children and the elderly -- some of the 1.5 million people left clinging to survival.
The reclusive military government is accepting aid from the outside world, including the United Nations, but has made it very clear it will not let in the foreign logistics teams needed to transport the aid as fast as possible into the inundated delta.
"Unless there is a massive and fast infusion of aid, experts and supplies into the hardest-hit areas, there's going to be a tragedy on an unimaginable scale," said Greg Beck of the International Rescue Committee.
In the delta town of Labutta, where 80 percent of homes were destroyed, the authorities were providing just one cup of rice per family per day, a European Commission aid official told Reuters.
The scenes are the same across the delta, the former "Rice Bowl of Asia" where as many as 100,000 people are feared dead in the worst cyclone to hit the continent since 1991, when 143,000 people died in neighbouring Bangladesh.
"We have 900 people here but we only have 300 lunch boxes. We gave it to the women and children first. The men still have not had any food," one woman said at a relief centre in the town of Myaung Mya, 100 km (60 miles) west of Yangon. "More are coming every day," she said.
UP TO 1.5 MILLION ENDANGERED
The lives of 1.5 million people in areas hit by the cyclone are at risk due to disease outbreaks unless a tsunami-like aid effort is mobilised, international agency Oxfam said on Sunday.
"In the Boxing Day tsunami 250,000 people lost their lives in the first few hours, but we did not see an outbreak of disease because the host governments and the world mobilised a massive aid effort to prevent it from happening," Oxfam's Regional Director for East Asia Sara Ireland told reporters in Bangkok. "We have to do the same for the people of Myanmar."
The cyclone is one of the worst disasters since the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami that hit a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean.
The government's official death toll remains at 23,350 dead and 37,019 missing from the storm on the night of May 2 and early on May 3. Most of the victims were killed by the 12-foot (3.5 metre) wall of sea-water that slammed into the delta.
Australia responded to a U.N. appeal for $187 million in aid by dramatically increasing its contribution to the cyclone victims on Sunday, pledging an extra A$22 million to take its total offer to A$25 million ($23.4 million).
The U.N. World Food Programme said on Sunday it is moving aid to its field headquarters in Labutta using trucks provided by its long-time partners in Myanmar, including the Red Cross.
The WFP has flown in seven shipments of aid, and an eighth was due to land on Sunday, spokesman in Bangkok Marcus Prior told Reuters. The agency said its food shipments had been briefly impounded on Friday at Yangon airport.
France is set to deliver 1,500 tonnes of rice aid, with or without the junta's permission, aboard the warship Mistral, which would arrive in Myanmar's waters in the middle of this week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said at the weekend.
The daily Le Figaro on Saturday quoted him as saying the ship's crew would distribute the aid to cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta "in small flat-bottomed boats or helicopters, or by French NGOs already on the ground. "It is out of the question for us to provide aid directly to the junta, even if it accepts it," Kouchner said.
FOCUS ON REFERENDUM
Despite the alarm bells from the international community, the junta has kept its focus firmly on a seven-step "roadmap to democracy" that is meant to culminate in multi-party elections in 2010 and bring an end to nearly five decades of military rule in the former Burma.
The paper said election officials were "systematically and accurately" counting the ballots, but said nothing about when the results would be released.
The referendum was the first exercise in democracy since 1990, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party won elections in a landslide, a result the generals nullified. The vote has been delayed by two weeks in the worst-hit areas, including Yangon, the former capital and city of five million. There is little doubt about the final result.
"I voted yes. It was what I was asked to do," 57-year-old U Hlaing told Reuters in the town of Hlegu, northwest of Yangon.
Even before Cyclone Nargis, groups opposed to military rule, and foreign governments led by the United States had denounced the vote as an attempt by the military to legitimise its 46-year grip on power.