/ 29 April 2009

Burmese cyclone survivors still living in squalor

When That Pyin celebrates her first birthday the day after the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, her father won’t be there — he was one of the 138 000 people left dead or missing by the storm.

The baby will spend the day as she has most of the last year, huddled with her sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother in a shack covered by a blue tarpaulin in the western Burmese village of Ka Nyin Kone.

The horrors of the night on May 2 and 3 2008 when the cyclone ripped through Burma’s Irrawaddy delta — and of the arduous birth the next day — are still fresh for her mother, San San.

”It was a hard time for me to give birth to her when we had no medicine,” San San said as she fed her child milk. She was able to deliver successfully in the end with the help of a village midwife.

Now the family are struggling to get by, living much as they have done since the disaster struck this bleak landscape, denuded of trees and stripped of most buildings by the surging waters a year ago.

San San said she had received a fishing boat and an engine from an aid agency so that she can carry on without her husband. Her eldest brother now helps her do the work instead.

The scene in their village in the badly-hit Labutta area, about 150km from Rangoon, is much the same as elsewhere in the delta, where the aid that came in for the first six months, after initial obstruction by Burma’s military junta, has largely dried up.

The United Nations says that 130 000 families are still living in temporary shelters like the one which baby That Pyin and her family call home.

International agencies have constructed about 7 000 houses and repaired about 30 000 houses, while the government and private sector pledged to build 18 000 and have completed about half of that so far, UN figures show.

”There were many donors came to help us for a few months after Nargis but no donors have come in the last six months,” said 47-year-old woman farmer Nyo Htwe.

Eking out a living is still a challenge.

Nyo Htwe said aid agencies gave her rice seeds for her 28 hectares of paddies but she could still only produce a third as much as last year because of the salty soil from the seawater that flooded the
fields, and because the rice growing period began late.

”We are now beginning to worry for this year’s harvest again,” she said.

The United Nations World Food programme said that of the one million people who initially needed assistance after the cyclone, 350 000 still
need food handouts and 250 000 will continue to do so until the end of the year.

In the village of Kukko, also in Labutta, where almost half the local population were killed, 30 houses have been built by a construction company but the other 100 or so are constructed from
wood, iron and tarpaulin.

A signboard with the name of the village contains an extra line in Burmese: ”Kukko villagers hate Nargis.”

Many wonder how they will protect themselves if another storm comes.

”How can we protect ourselves without any shelter? We can’t even protect our own family. Except from a few trees, we have no protection,” said a village official, Soe Naing.

”I just replaced the tarpaulin roof with a palm leaves a few days ago and there are many houses in my village that still have the same tarpaulin roofs.”

In Pon Ka Mar village, a three-hour boat trip from Labutta, the most basic needs of life are increasingly hard to come by. About 45% of its inhabitants were wiped out and the village almost
totally destroyed.

”Don’t ask me about drinking water,” said the village’s Christian pastor, asking not to be named in this mainly Buddhist country. ”Even the three household-use-water ponds are going to dry very soon.”

Aid agencies said the situation was still grim throughout the delta.

”In rural places where the cyclone hit first and hardest, frankly very little recovery has taken place,” said Andrew Kirkwood who runs Save the Children’s programme in Burma.

”The assistance provided has been enough to sustain people at a very basic level.” – AFP