Page last updated at 19:19 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 20:19 UK

British cyclone aid heads for Burma

By Alex Bushill
BBC News

Shelterbox volunteers packing boxes
Tents, mosquito nets, stoves and saws are among the items being sent

Thousands of miles from the Irrawaddy delta, on the outskirts of a small English town, a Cornish charity is preparing to save Burmese lives.

At its workshop in Helston's one and only industrial estate, a rescue operation is swinging into action.

Tents, mosquito nets, stoves and saws are all being packed into green plastic boxes ready to be flown to South East Asia.

The charity is Shelterbox, and its efforts are beginning to pay off. On Wednesday evening they will be among the first UK aid agencies to send supplies direct from Britain to Burma.

The boxes will make a huge difference, possibly life saving and certainly life changing
Tom Henderson, Shelterbox founder

This is despite visa restrictions and an initial reluctance by Burma's military government to allow international aid after one of the worst natural disasters in living memory.

For the charity's founder, Tom Henderson, the arrival of 200 boxes to the disaster zone - with enough supplies to shelter 4,000 people - is an achievement of which he is proud.

"The boxes will make a huge difference, possibly life saving and certainly life changing," he says.

The charity was launched in 2000 when the local Cornish Rotary was reluctant to send money abroad when more practical aid was needed.

A box a minute

"After all it's difficult to misappropriate 20 tonnes of green boxes but cash can be spent by anyone in any way," says Mr Henderson.

Back in their warehouse, Shelterbox's team of volunteers are packing a box a minute.

Each 60kg (132lb) box contains a 10-man tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, water purification tablets and tool kits.

Operations manager Lasse Peterson said the charity would be tailoring the boxes to the needs on the ground - so for Burma, mosquito nets are a must.

From the South West of England the 200 boxes will be driven to Heathrow airport, flown to Bangkok and from there to the Burmese city of Yangon.

Although we expect conditions to be tough on the ground, any small difference we can make, we will
Ian Neal, Shelterbox team leader

Four of their colleagues will then meet the supplies, sometime on Thursday morning.

With the help of a network of local contacts, the consignment of aid will then be taken where it is most needed.

Shelterbox's team leader on the ground in Burma, Ian Neal - a Cornish firefighter - did not hesitate to travel out to the disaster zone.

Before he left he said: "Although we expect conditions to be tough on the ground, any small difference we can make, we will".

Their deployment will last two weeks - with another 50 volunteers on standby ready to take their place. Another 1,000 boxes are being packed in order to be sent out in the next few days.

The UN has already criticised the Burmese government's reluctance to grant entry visas to aid workers in the aftermath of the cyclone.

'Quality equipment'

Although it is thought a million people have been left homeless in the worst affected areas, the military junta has been accused of not doing enough to allow international aid to flow.

Although this, as Mr Henderson explains, has not proved too much of a hurdle for them.

"We've got a good working relationship with the Burmese government," he says.

"We like to think that is because of our experience in 40 other countries and the quality of our equipment."

It is also helped by a close working relationship with other NGOs in Burma, he says.

So despite the challenge of overcoming the Burmese bureaucracy, Shelterbox's supplies could soon make the difference between life and death.


SEE ALSO
Aid arriving in cyclone-hit Burma
07 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
ShelterBox sending aid to Burma
06 May 08 |  Cornwall
ShelterBox crib for newborn baby
18 Jan 08 |  Cornwall

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