Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cyclone survivors left to their own devices

by Celeste Chenard

‘Postcard from the Irrawaddy Delta’

Travelling from Rangoon and in the south west direction, less than two hours by car is necessary to realize the extent of damage caused by Cyclone Nargis where more than 138,000 were killed or missing, one year after its passage. But it is by meeting the survivors in the Irrawaddy Delta that one can really realize to what extent the population has been completely forsaken.

That’s perhaps the reason why, in some remote villages, the inhabitants are eager to talk. For all of them, before they had rarely seen the visit of a foreigner.

Most people also have never been interviewed by a journalist; it was their first occasion after Nargis to express their concerns about their situation.

Surprisingly and somehow because they have nothing more to lose, they talked in an outspoken way about their poor livelihood or their resentment against the government.

When asked about their first need today, just one year after the cyclone, all the villagers interviewed had the same answer: housing.

Rehabilitation efforts are indeed the first preoccupation of the inhabitants of the devastated region, especially a few weeks before the start of the rainy season.

The reconstruction phase is still underway and in some villages it is far from being achieved: fallen trees are still obstructing roads or gardens, UNICEF or USAID tarpaulin sheets are still covering most of the roofs or walls of the houses, and construction materials are lying on the ground waiting to be used for new constructions.

You can see in each village men working at fixing roofs, rebuilding collapsed schools, pagodas or monasteries. Meanwhile thousands of families are still living in temporary shelters waiting for their new house to be built.

So why is the reconstruction process taking so much time? Where are the barriers? Who bridles the process while rehabilitation efforts, including rebuilding homes and reestablishing livelihoods, education, and health infrastructure are urgently needed?

In most of the villages one visited the last aid received was around two months ago and for most of them, it was a sole bag of rice. This fact raises serious concerns about the aid supplies which are barely still ongoing, particularly in the remote places.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, international donors have been very active in providing emergency measures, despite the first limitations imposed by the junta, but what about the mid-term recovery process?

Moreover, just by visiting different villages, one can see an obvious unequal distribution of aid between villages.

In the villages near the main agglomeration or near the highways, the reconstruction is going well. Even if the situation of the population is still precarious, they have rebuilt houses, and infrastructures are coming back to normal.

However in some remote places, nothing was done. Some villages hadn’t received aid not only from the government, but also from UN agencies. No NGOs have reached there yet.

Kan Chung village, part of the Ma Ngay Gyi village group in Bogalay Division, is a good example of totally forsaken villages the more badly hit by the cyclone, but also provided with less supply of aid relief.

In that village group, around 1,000 families used to live and 700 houses were demolished totally. In total, around 200 people died in the village and 300 are missing.

On June 1, children of Kan Chung village will go back to school in their still partly-destroyed school, patched up with the materials the villagers could find, and with “roofs” made of tarpaulins full of holes.

In a village group located in the same division, seven miles from Bogalay, the children are luckier, they will go back to school in an almost finished house built thanks to private local donors.

This gap between areas in the recovery effort can be explained by the government’s pretence of high involvement in the rehabilitation efforts. This reflects a serious breach of trust by the government in such a natural and human disaster.

These targeted investments in some highlighted places may be linked to a shameful dual politics of interests.

On the one hand, in the context of the 2010 elections, the junta needs to shows to the delta population its “involvement” in the recovery process. The propaganda efforts of the junta, especially with the ensuing 2010 elections are indeed increasing. But does the junta still think it can make a good impression? Let’s be realistic, no one is blind, neither the international community, nor the Burmese people who are the first witness and victims of the government.

On the other hand, economical interest always prevails, and the delta region it is not the more appropriate or interesting place to inject money for the government. It is a remote area with tourist spots and part of it is inhabited by Karen “rebels”. So why put money in the rehabilitation of that area? Instead it is worthier for the regime to invest in the renovation of the Naypyitaw airport in Burma's new jungle capital to international standards where transportation and communication facilities will be upgraded to facilitate the travel of military rulers to their homes.

A recovery plan prepared by the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations in Myanmar and the Government of the Union of Myanmar, says that $US 690 million is needed from the international community over the next three years to restore people's lives back to what it was before the cyclone.

It is clear that new funding and a period of three years are needed for a return to normal in the region. But the question is why already one year has been spent without a proper recovery action plan?

Actually, the population of the delta is far from thinking about full recovery, they just think about having a proper house, enough food to have at least two meals a day, and accessible drinking water.

If life in military-ruled Burma has always been (Nargis or not) a question of surviving, it is not the reason to forsake the population.

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