Tuesday, May 19, 2009

BURMA: Nature Conspires Against Cyclone Victims, Denying Them Clean Water

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 19 (IPS) - A year after powerful Cyclone Nargis tore through Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta and southern Rangoon, killing tens of thousands of people, nature continues to play a cruel trick on survivors.

It has led to thousands of villagers still left without access to clean water, a situation that is rare in natural disasters of similar magnitude. In Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh, which was flattened by the 2004 tsunami, clean water was restored to the survivors within the first year.

The problem in Burma stems from the challenge to clean the large ponds that serve as a major source of water for the villages spread across the nearly 18,500 square kilometres that was affected by the cyclone in the early hours of May 3, 2008.

Out of the 4,540 ponds that were damaged, nearly 1,000 have still to be rehabilitated, according to aid agencies. The latter are struggling against the forces of nature - where salt water seeps into the ponds that have been cleaned, preventing the cyclone-affected victims from turning to such ponds as they did before the disaster.

"This is an unusual situation," Andrew Kirkwood, head of the humanitarian agency Save the Children’s operations in Burma, told IPS. "In these areas, the drinking ponds and wells have been contaminated by salt water and the streams and rivers are much too salty to drink at this time of the year."

Consequently, some 240,000 people in the southwestern swathe of the delta "don’t have access to fresh drinking water in their own communities," he revealed. "We are distributing three litres of water per day per person. That is the absolute minimum."

It is a situation that is "not sustainable," he added, due to the pressure on the 10 water treatment plants that Save the Children set up in remote parts of the delta to remove salt from the water. "Because the machines cost a lot to operate. The boats to distribute the water are expensive to run. And, the machines will eventually breakdown."

Aid agencies are hoping that the onset of the monsoon rains this month will help. "We hope the problem will ease during the rainy season," says Bernd Schell, head of the Burma office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). "It takes time to rehabilitate this particular type of water source."

The efforts to clean the ponds were not limited to flushing out the water with high salinity. "There were many dead bodies inside; there were many dead animals," Schell told IPS.

IFRC’s initial supply of water to the victims soon after Nargis struck conveys the challenges faced by relief agencies. It supplied some 800,000 litres per day as its contribution to the relief efforts.

Cyclone Nargis, which killed nearly 140,000 people and displaced 2.4 million, created a major humanitarian challenge for the government of military-ruled Burma, or Myanmar. Restoring the supply of clean water was among them.

A report by a tripartite group, including the Burmese government and the United Nations, revealed that 63 percent of victims surveyed admitted that their "current access to clean water was inadequate."

"Approximately 1.8 million severely affected people (are) in need of improved water supply," added the report, released two months after the disaster.

The Burmese junta’s reputation as an oppressive and corrupt regime did not help in the relief efforts. Much needed foreign funds to help in the immediate relief efforts and longer-term rehabilitation programmes have fallen well short of the set targets.

A U.N. flash appeal to attract 477 million dollars to help in the urgent relief efforts has succeeded in raising only a 66 percent financial commitment, or 315 million dollars, according to the world body.

And early this year, a fresh appeal by the U.N. for 691 million dollars to fund the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan - covering a period from 2009-2011 - has only raised 100 million dollars.

This funding shortfall is reflected in water and sanitation programmes for the Nargis victims. Only 29.7 million dollars have been subscribed, which is some 60 percent of the 49.7 million dollars requested in the initial flash appeal after the disaster.

The money that has come in has helped to ensure that 150,000 school children in 800 schools have access to water and sanitation facilities, in addition to constructing 2,000 hand-dug wells, states a U.N. background note on the on-going humanitarian relief and recovery efforts in Burma.

Such work, in addition to cleaning some 3,500 ponds, also went a long way to prevent the outbreak of major water-borne diseases, which many feared would sweep through the delta after the cyclone.

"We believe that the interventions have helped in averting major disease outbreaks," says Waldemar Pickardt, chief of water and environmental sanitation for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), one of the many U.N. and aid agencies that teamed up to supply clean water to the victims. "There have not been any reported cases of mortality or morbidity related to shortage of water or consumption of unsafe water."

To ensure that picture prevails, relief agencies agreed to increase the amount of water supplied to cyclone victims who still lack access to natural sources of water. "The initial minimum limit was set at a minimum of three litres per person per day. In March 2009, this was increased to a minimum of five litres per person per day," added Pickardt in an e-mail interview from Rangoon, the former Burmese capital.

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