Feature: Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta recovering 6 months after Nargis

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Kristina Rich, dpa

Yangon/Singapore_(dpa) _ Many young women in Myanmar's (Burma's) Irrawaddy delta region have stopped wearing their hair traditionally long, word goes.

Too many of them died in the metre-high floods brought on by Cyclone Nargis, because their hair got entangled in tree branches, or were strangled by their own hair as it wrapped around their neck.

Whether that is true or not is hard to verify. But hundreds of thousands were traumatised by the worst natural catastrophe the country has ever seen.

More than 138,000 lives were lost during the cyclone in May, and some 2.4 million people lost their belongings, while about 800,000 homes were destroyed.

The world community reacted with outrage over the heartlessness of Myanmar's military regime, which delayed deployment of troops to the affected area so they could instead conduct a highly criticized public referendum on the country's constitution.

Thousands of foreign relief workers were stranded outside the country's borders because the paranoid regime denied them entry visas.

Now, six months after the disaster, life is improving all over the delta.

The next rice harvest is due, families are able again to feed themselves, and field work provides income opportunities.

"The situation is now under control," said Chris Kaye, a representative of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Yangon.

"While we still have to provide food for 740,000 people, we hope to reduce this figure to about half after the upcoming harvest has been brought in," he added.

But relief aid is still lacking in some remote regions to this day.

"Many families in remote areas of the Irrawaddy delta still only live in badly repaired huts, and children are malnourished and sick," said Helga Stamm-Berg of the non-governmental relief organization World Vision.

But in its hour of greatest need and largely cut off from foreign aid, Myanmar's society has showed enormous selflessness, compassion and resilience.

"It was an incredible solidarity. My neighbour sold his wife's jewelry, bought drinking water and noodles with the money and simply started distributing the goods," recounted a woman in Yangon.

"A unique culture of solidarity emerged during the cyclone's aftermath" agreed Kaye.

"People not only raised some money for the cyclone's survivors and then moved on, but they deployed all their resources for weeks and months," he explained.

Only four long weeks after the disaster and only after numerous appeals by the United Nations did the junta finally open the country to large-scale foreign aid.

Since then, a plethora of foreign relief organizations has started working in Myanmar.

They build schools and latrines, pump salt water out of contaminated pools, educate farmers about new farming methods and bring new working animals and livestock into the country.

Still, Kaye estimates that the impending rice harvest of some 8 million tons will be about one third smaller than the usual yield.

"Due to the disaster the rice paddies could only be planted four to six weeks later than normal," said Klaus Lohmann of Germany's Welthungerhilfe (World Hunger Aid), who currently is in Myanmar together with 60 co-workers.

Then the paddies were invaded by freshwater crabs who started eating the young rice plants.

"The crabs come every year, but usually the plants are already stronger and less vulnerable by that time," he explained, adding that in some areas up to one quarter of paddies were lost to crabs.

Vocal outrage against the delayed aid from the military government has been heard nowhere.

"The cyclone was the best thing that could have happened to the junta," said a local journalist in Yangon.

"After Nargis nobody had time to become outraged, and today the junta has consolidated its power more securely than ever before," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa on condition of anonymity.

A former political prisoner even defended the ruling generals.

"US first lady Laura Bush called the disaster an opportunity for a possible regime change, and then foreign warships appeared off Myanmar's coast allegedly carrying relief goods. One really couldn't blame the generals for becoming suspicious," he said.

Some of the foreign aid workers in the country also speak with respect for the junta.

"One thing became clear: The government is not a monolithic block," said one of them who often has to deal with high-ranking officials about aid programmes.

"Some of them recognise that the country can profit from cooperating with the international community. But between these technocrats and the leading generals there still exists a concrete wall several metres thick," he admitted. dpa oe ts jh

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