Sunday, May 10, 2009

After the Deluge: Burmese Remember Nargis One Year On

May 9th, 2009 by Kong Janoi

Asia Calling

Nearly one year after cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta, killing more than a hundred thousand people, many are still without basic necessities such as drinking water.

The United Nations says small gains have been made but the country and its people are still in desperate need of foreign assistance.

In Bangkok our reporter Kong Janoi spoke with aid groups still working in the Delta and produced this report.

Members of Bangkok’s Burmese community gathered in the Thai capital to mark the one year anniversary of the cyclone which swept across Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on May the 2nd last year, killing more than 130,000 people.

This song was composed in its wake; it describes the powerful storm and the death and destruction it caused.

For two days Nargis battered the Irrawaddy. What the gusts of wind didn’t destroy was swept away by a massive tidal surge. Residents in the fertile rice-growing region, already among the poorest in the world, could do little to escape. Some 2.4 million were left homeless, their crops and animals destroyed.

Now one year on, some survivors say they are struggling to find the bare necessities. A Ryee Mya lost her husband in the disaster.

Tens of thousands of fishermen lost boats and nets in the disaster.

Ba Twe was one of them. He still can’t work because his boat and net have yet to be replaced.

“We don’t have any work to do now. We have no fishing nets. Nobody has been able to go back to work yet. In this village there are about 30 households, all of them have been unable to rebuild their houses. The plastic covering my hut, I won it in a lottery. I am lucky. They don’t have enough plastic for everyone so they have to distribute it by a lottery system.”

Farmers lost their rice crops and vast stretches of land were left unusable after being contaminated with sea-water. Many have been unable to pay back loans or find the funds to purchase new seeds, water buffaloes and equipment to plant crops.

U Poe Hla says he is still waiting for assistance promised by the government.

“We are all farmers here, we don’t have any supplies or money for farming. We need machines, gasoline or cows to grow rice. The government said they will provide us with credit but still we have not received it yet.”

The United Nations says some gains have been made. Almost all the children separated from their parents or orphaned have been reunited with their families or placed with new carers.

But more than half a million people are without adequate shelter, a big concern as the country approaches another monsoon season. And 350,000 people are still receiving food assistance.

Andrew Kirkwood is the director of Save the Children Fund in Burma. He says his organization is working overtime to provide drinking water for people in the Delta region.

“Save the children imported 10 machines to make water from out of salt water, plus three additional water treatment plants, those machine are working 24 hours a day. We are putting water into boat with big rubber platter and distributing water on a daily basis for 660,000 people in the delta. The amount water we are distributing about three liter per person, per day. It is the absolute minimum needed for survival.”

In the weeks after the disaster, the Burmese military government was condemned by the international community for its refusal to let foreign assistance into the country. Eventually some foreign workers were given access and many still remain there.

Frank Smithius is the Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Burma. He says foreign aids workers still face restrictions.

“It is not better than it was before Nargis, but it is also not worse than before Nargis. In Myanmar there are a numerous aresa that are not accessible for foreign organizations.”

What all aid agencies will say is that Burma is in desperate need of foreign donations. They point to the fact that donors have given 315 million dollars in aid - less than half of what the United Nations requested. By contrast the international community donated 12 billion dollars after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people.

NGO’s say ongoing sanctions against the military junta often discourage people from donating to funds to assist Burma. The country receives just two dollars-eighty in foreign per head of population each year. Next door, the people of Laos receive 49 dollars per head.

Frank Smithius says the international community needs to change its attitude towards Burma.

“The whole country has been ignored and that’s very unfortunate. In other third-world countries there is a lot of international aid, not in Myanmar. Nargis might have been positive trigger to change that for the future, I really hope so because the needs in the whole country are enormous and there are tens of thousands of people dying each year of diseases that are very easy to treat and I don’t think there is a good excuse for that.“

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