BURMA: Two Years after Nargis, Life Is Far from Normal

  • by Mon Mon Myat (bogalay, burma)
  • Friday, April 30, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

On May 2, 2008, Kyaw Moe lost his wife and two children in the midst of Cyclone Nargis, which slammed with all its Category 3 might through the Irrawaddy Delta and the southern part of the Rangoon Division. By the time the skies cleared and the winds stopped blowing, Thakan Ngu — some six hours by car and boat ride from the former capital Rangoon — had about half of its population of nearly 300 either missing or dead.

Estimates by foreign aid organisations put Nargis’s total fatalities in Burma at some 140,000 while the United Nations says 2.4 million people were affected by the cyclone. Total amount of damage and losses reached 4.05 billion U.S. dollars, according the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report of the United Nations, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Burmese government.

International aid agencies have since been trying to help Nargis’ survivors recover from the tragedy. For instance, some 1.1 million Burmese have been given food aid in the two years after Nargis, says the U.N. Assistance by groups like the Myanmar Red Cross, World Vision, and the Paris-based Gret have also enabled people like Kyaw Moe continue to till land for a living.

But Nargis’s devastation was too great to make for a quick and simple recovery. Complicating matters is the changing weather that has had farmers at a loss over what they can do to save their harvests and earn some money for their families.

'We have not recovered yet because farm yield is in decline,' says Kyaw Moe, who with his siblings works on a 11.33-hectare collective farmland. He points to other factors that have hindered their progress: 'This year, rats destroyed about two to three acres (.81 to 1.21 hectares) and farming cost has increased.'

Fellow farmer Win Soe, meanwhile, is steeling himself for a nearly empty wallet after harvest. To plant rice on his land, he had taken out a loan from a rice mill owner at a 50-percent interest, plus a promise that he would sell his harvest to the lender at a price set by the latter. But he now expects a yield that is much less than he has hoped for.

'We knew it was going to be a big burden,' says Win Soe of the loan and arrangement he has made for his crop. 'But we had no choice as we needed the money to plant and harvest.'

Conceded Thierry Delbrevue, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) here: 'It is something that is less understood by the donors…. Livelihood is one of the most critical sectors actually, maybe after shelter.'

A 2007 survey by the government and U.N. agencies had indicated that up to 60 percent of the families in the delta were engaged in agriculture. In Thakan Ngu, more than 20 of the 50 families are into farming while the rest are casual labourers who rely on seasonal work such as fishing or helping raise livestock or poultry.

To be sure, after Nargis, rice farmers who owned land less than six hectares were given seeds, fertiliser, and diesel for two farming cycles. Power tillers were provided for sharing among five to six farmers.

But these proved inadequate for them to have harvests as good as they had before the cyclone rampaged through their fields in 2008. The Post-Nargis Periodic Review III Tripartite Core Group (TCG) of the U.N., ASEAN, and the Burmese government reported that the provision of agricultural inputs remains limited and the farm yields smaller than those before Nargis.

The slowdown in the delta’s farming sector has affected non-landowners as well. Says Kyaw Moe: 'We can’t afford to hire labour like before because it’s a burden to us. With us working on our own, it means less jobs for casual labourers.'

Thakan Nhu resident Khin Moe knows exactly what Kyaw Moe is saying. Although her family received a cash grant equal to 100 dollars from the United Nations Development Programme after Nargis, Khin Moe said it has been tough going.

In the past, she and her husband were able to keep their family clothed and fed by working as field hands and by fishing. After Nargis, they tried living on fishing alone.

For every two families in the village, the non-profit group World Vision had given a fishing net and boat, she says . She and her husband took out a loan to buy two more fishing nets, but they have not been able to catch much fish from the river and are now drowning in debt.

'Before Nargis, farmers in our village could provide jobs for us,' Khin Moe says. 'If we had (farm) jobs, we could pay the loan.'

'Soon after Nargis, our life was very convenient as we received regular food aid and some jobs were created by the organisations,' the 45-year-old adds. 'But life is getting harder now.'

UNOCHA’s Delbrevue worries that things may just get worse. '(If) people will not have any capacity, if they don’t have any asset…they will be extremely vulnerable in the future.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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