The monsoon rain fell fast and heavy when the wet season began in north and west Myanmar in July. The people here are resilient and prepare themselves the best they can; there is often some flooding, which causes damage to homes and crops. They are, however, very poor, and in some communities those who are able to have already left to try to find work – leaving the young and old behind and vulnerable to exploitation, hunger and ill health.
The floods of 2015 will go down in Myanmar’s history as the worst for decades. Government records actually suggest they’ve not been this bad for a century. Over one million people are seriously affected. 100 people lost their lives as the waters of the Irrawaddy Delta inundated homes and fields and landslides caused havoc in northern Chin state. In August, after Cyclone Komen also hit Myanmar, the government declared a state of emergency in several regions and appealed for international help. In 2008, when Typhoon Nargis killed over 130,000 people, it refused any outside assistance.
Caritas Karuna – or KMSS as it is also known – is the local Caritas organization. It sprung into action in the worst affected areas, where it has a strong grassroots presence and network. Francis Lynnpard is Caritas’ Emergency Programme Manager in Myanmar. He says, “Because we have a chain of 17 offices around the country we were able to get to work right away. We deployed Emergency Response Teams to Pyay, Yangon, Pathein, Kalay and Hakha Dioceses. In all of these areas we have the trust of the communities and of local government, plus the support of Caritas Internationalis when we asked for help. We’ve also learned a lot about emergency response since the devastation brought by Cyclone Nargis 7 years ago and we had plans in place.”
In Yangon Diocese – home to the biggest city – staff and volunteers welcomed people evacuated from their homes into temporary shelters in churches, pagodas and schools. Caritas went out in canoes to warn people of coming flood waters in Pathein in the far west of the Irrawaddy Delta and evacuated them in makeshift boats. A mobile health clinic with a doctor and 3 nurses tended to people in 15 badly affected villages. Close to the border with India in Kalay Diocese, Caritas rescued over 700 people from 2 remote villages when a flash flood threatened to overwhelm them. At the hospital there, Caritas helped to move patients and medicines away from the floodwaters coming into the wards and dispensary.
Now, Caritas Karuna has geared up to a full emergency response programme with backing from Caritas Internationalis, providing food, clean water and shelter for 120,000 people in 6 diocese. Caritas teams are taking supplies out by barge and canoe to the remotest villages; they’ve been especially hard hit as they were totally cut off when bridges were destroyed by strong winds and raging waters.
The grave damage to infrastructure is making access difficult for humanitarian teams in many areas though; roads are blocked by landslides and debris in the water can make navigating rivers hazardous. There’s also been a knock on effect on the availability and price of relief supplies, so Caritas must spend more to get the goods it needs for people who in many cases have lost everything. Some of those who have been able to return to their homes have found all of their belongings ruined from being buried in mud. Others are struggling to actually identify their fields ; the water level is still very high in parts of the Irrawaddy Delta and people still have to travel everywhere by boat.
Hunger and food security is now a massive concern. The Irrawaddy Delta is Myanmar’s rice bowl and it flooded badly. Countrywide, 1.3 million acres were underwater at the full extent of the flood. Seeds, livestock, grain stocks and other provisions are all lost; the planting season is badly disrupted. The humanitarian need is going to be substantial here for some time to come. Francis Lynnpard says, “Floods and landslides have brought rough sand into the paddies and farmers can’t re-cultivate without removing this and mounds of other debris, such as wood, concrete and metal. They just can’t plant the winter crop. In parts of Chin state the villages are uninhabitable. People are down to zero status and faced with a spiraling level of indebtedness.”
In the villages of Sit Pin Gyi and Gaung Gyi, Caritas Karuna’s Father Pious explains to the patiently waiting crowd how the distribution of relief supplies would work. Everyone would be registered and then rice and cooking oil given out. There were also buckets to help with sanitation and a water purifier for each family. Staff showed them how to make river water safe to drink. As sickness goes hand in hand with flooding, stopping the spread of water-borne diseases is crucial so that longer-term reconstruction and recovery can get underway.
But for Francis Lynnpard, the Emergency Programme Manager for Caritas in Myanmar, there is another, menacing, worry – migration. “If people can’t find alternative sources of income, they migrate, both within Myanmar and over its borders. They are vulnerable to trafficking and I fear that tensions with other communities will result. Caritas must help them with cash grants in addition to the basic emergency humanitarian relief. But we have limited resources too – it’s hard to know how we can keep up with the demand for help.”