The monsoon is coming again to Myanmar. This change in seasons signifies a year has passed since Cyclone Nargis wreaked its havoc on the country.
Despite the many successes of the emergency response the situation is still dire for many of those affected. Tens of thousands of families will face this years rainy season with only makeshift shelters for protection. Others have not yet regained their livelihoods. The memories of Cyclone Nargis are still raw.
The dioceses of Yangon and Pathein were the worst affected with almost 140,000 people killed or unaccounted for. The immediate influx of money and solidarity to the Cyclone Nargis Appeal was vital to the emergency response capacity of the local Caritas offices, known as “Karunas”.
Solidarity and resilience
Rosemary Pikko, Emergencies Coordinator of the National Karuna Office, or “KMSS” (Karuna Myanmar Social Services), says that an unprecedented sense of solidarity and resilience has grown in the affected areas thanks to the support offered by the Caritas response.
“Now when I meet affected people many of them are able to stand by themselves”, Rosemary says.
“The villagers have told us that they have more family spirit for their communities than before, they don’t just think of their own family but try to help each other.
“They have said that the work of Karuna has enabled them to do this by bringing people together and discussing what they need and what they want to do.
“One villager commented that Karuna is the one agency that is still there with them.”
The Catholic Church, with its strong local networks, has been working in Myanmar for decades. Karuna was able to rapidly mobilise hundreds of staff and volunteers from the affected parishes of Yangon, Mawlamyine and Pathein and from far away dioceses, to support the substantial relief effort.
Rosemary remembers the immediate aftermath of the disaster
“When I think back to the first week of the cyclone the first image is of one man who came to the Bishop’s compound in Pathein,” she says.
“He described how his village had nothing; they even had to use the clothes from the ones who died.
“Within one hour the Bishop and diocesan staff were able to send some materials. Over the next days we trained staff and volunteers so they could go to help the villagers.
“At the time I was really amazed at how ordinary people in the cities were able to organise themselves to take food and clothes to the Delta.”
While staff from international non-government organizations found it difficult to access the affected area, local Church representatives who already had a presence, could respond almost immediately. As an existing part of the community, they had the advantage of speaking the language and could purchase goods locally, facilitating a quick, culturally appropriate response.
“There was amazing generosity from people in Myanmar, a spirit of service from all the volunteers and great compassion and charity from the Caritas network,” Rosemary recalls.
In the first weeks and months following the disaster, Karuna staff recruited, trained and coordinated over 200 volunteers to work together with them.
Teams of volunteers and staff travelled to the affected area as soon as the government permitted access, some as early as just a few days after the cyclone. It soon became clear that the need was far greater than initially thought. In one town locals tried to jump into their boat, desperate for help. Volunteers and staff were confronted on every trip with the sight of dead bodies along the river edge.
Volunteers lived and worked with affected communities gaining the trust of the traumatized victims and helping to bury the dead, care for survivors, clear debris, clean wells, erect temporary shelters and distribute relief supplies.
How we’ve helped
The affected population needed immediate food aid and basic commodities. In the first six months Karuna supplied over twenty six thousand people with staples such as rice, bottled water, cooking oil, potatoes, sugar and spices. Thousands of people were supplied with non-food items including blankets, shelter materials, mosquito nets, household hygiene kits and sanitation kits to replace damaged latrines.
Over five hundred permanent houses were completed, 40 tube wells constructed and twelve thousand people took part in a cash for work program. Two medical teams visited villages, offering antenatal care for pregnant women and treating infections, fevers and injuries sustained from the cyclone. A psycho-social support program also was established to assist in the emotional recovery of thousands of survivors who had endured horrific experiences.
Most children were able to return to school within weeks of the cyclone, with Church buildings that were still standing acting as temporary classrooms and over 10,500 education kits distributed. This was crucial in order to bring some sense of normality to the many shattered lives.
Although much has been achieved over the last year in providing for the population’s immediate needs, Rosemary says that the work is just beginning on long term rehabilitation.
“Some people are now still living under tarpaulins and many are struggling to rebuild their livelihoods,” she says.
Instead of feeding the rest of the country, as it used to, the Irrawaddy Delta, formerly known as the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Myanmar, is now itself facing food shortages. Fertile agricultural land has had to be rehabilitated after being affected by sea water and there are still difficulties in accessing the area.
More than 50% of affected farming families have not regained their productive assets they had before the cyclone, such as arable land, livestock and home gardens. Seventy five percent of families relying on fishing for as living have not yet replaced their boats and nets.
The current phase of the Nargis response is focused on increasing the output of small-scale farming and developing small businesses and micro- enterprises. This is being done by promoting revolving agricultural loans, rice seed banks and cattle banks, improving markets and market access and developing cooperatives.
The livelihood programs that the Karuna’s have initiated support this recovery, by helping people to restore their potential to earn an income. The program also attempts to protect people against future disasters.
“We still need to improve Disaster Risk Reduction so that villagers can understand the risk they live with and reduce their vulnerability”. Rosemary says.
“Last week when Cyclone Bijli threatened us, the people in the villages were very scared but we were able to get information to them that the danger was different to before. “
”We would like to thank our friends for all their support that helps us to continue this work.”