Randeep Ramesh, South Asia correspondent, Owen Bowcott, Haroon Siddique and agencies
Monday November 19, 2007
Guardian Unlimited Aid poured into Bangladesh today as the death toll from Cyclone Sidr spiralled above 3,000, with fears that thousands more bodies have yet to be found.
The government rapidly deployed naval and military helicopters as rescue workers made their way to outlying areas where entire villages are believed to have been flattened.
Sorties were being flown to the devastated areas, dropping food, drinking water and medicine for the survivors, but they were limited as to where they could land.
However, a government "early warning programme" had saved a vast number of lives, the UN resident coordinator, Renata Dessallien, said. About 1.5 million people on the coast were able to flee to shelters.
Unicef said the cyclone had affected 3.2 million people.
"We are trying to reach all the affected areas on the vast coastline as soon as possible, when we will know how many people exactly have died in the devastation," one government official said.
The UN said it was making available $7m (£3.4m) from its central emergency fund, and the World Food Programme (WFP) was rushing in aid. Britain announced a £2.5m relief package last night, and Washington said two ships would deliver 35 tonnes of non-food aid. The Dhaka foreign ministry said King Saud of Saudi Arabia had announced a $100m grant for the victims and Riyadh would airlift 300 tonnes of food and relief materials.
International aid organisations promised initial packages of $25m in total during a meeting with Bangladesh agencies today, said Emamul Haque, from the Dhaka office of the WFP, which is coordinating international relief efforts.
During his Sunday blessing from the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI called for "every possible effort to help our brothers who have been so sorely tested".
Cyclone Sidr, which produced winds of 150mph, demolished houses, crops, trees and shrimp farms. Disaster officials put the number of homes destroyed at more than 750,000. Although the main port, Chittagong, was back in operation yesterday, many ships were still missing.
Suman Sengupta, the director of Save the Children in Bangladesh, said he feared the final death toll could be as high as 10,000 to 15,000.
His assessment was based on the widespread extent of disruption caused by floods that have cut off many areas of the country, creating isolated islands.
"A lot of fishermen are not yet accounted for," a London-based spokeswoman for the charity added. "At this stage we simply don't know how many people have been killed. We expect that when communications improve and these isolated areas are contacted, the death toll will rise. It's such a vast area where the roads have been destroyed."
The Bangladesh Red Crescent agreed that thousands more may have died. "Based on our experience in the past, and reports from the scene, the death toll may be as high as 10,000," its chairman, Muhammad Abdur Rob, told Reuters.
"We have seen more bodies floating in the sea," a fisherman, Zakir Hossain, from the south-west of the country, told the Associated Press after reaching shore with two decomposing bodies he and other fishermen had picked up.
In many areas mass graves have been created and grieving families have been begging for clothes to wrap around the bodies for burial.
Aid agencies also warned that floods in the summer had ruined one harvest and the havoc wreaked by the cyclone would compound the country's food situation. It is estimated that at least half the coastal crop was destroyed in a matter of hours.
Another fear was that many areas would be cut off for days. Oxfam said its teams took one and a half days to reach towns that were normally just five hours' drive from the capital, Dhaka.
Heather Blackwell, the head of Oxfam in Bangladesh, said: "There are many villages in remote areas, including on sandbank islands, that are yet to be reached. It could take weeks before we know how bad this cyclone was."
Impoverished, low-lying Bangladesh is battered by cyclones and floods every year. In 1991, more than 130,000 people died in a storm of similar size and strength.