Myanmar: Cyclone Nargis - Profiles of village recovery

By Karl Schuler, Swiss Red Cross on special assignment with IFRC in Myanmar

With memories still fresh of the cyclone that devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta in early May, the population of Myanmar is now undertaking recovery efforts in the face of monsoon storms.

With a regular chug-chug sound, the boat carrying relief supplies and a team of Myanmar Red Cross Society relief workers glided across the fertile Ayeyarwady delta. The brown waters of the Yway river were in stark contrast to the light green of newly sown rice paddies along its banks.

Just as it does every year during monsoon season, the river had recently burst its banks in several places. The men and women of the area were making their way around on rafts, in canoes and in fishing boats that had seen better days, but had survived many similar floods.

At first sight there was no evidence that a few months earlier Cyclone Nargis had pounded this south-western corner of the delta. On this day, a ray of sunshine pierced through the rain-laden clouds. But then, on the banks of the Yway River, coloured tarpaulins caught the eye of those on the relief boat. They covered ramshackle bamboo huts scattered in with the ruins of homes destroyed by Cyclone Nargis.

Coping mechanism

Two hundred people, 39 houses, 30 fishing boats, 40 buffaloes: that was the statistical profile of the village of Kan Thar Yar before 2 May 2008. Kan Thar Yar, is some 50 kilometres from the Andaman coast, deep inside the Labutta township, which is one of the regions hardest hit by the cyclone.

"Four people lost their lives in this village," said Ba Shwa, a 33-year-old farmer. "More than half the houses were destroyed or damaged, and 21 fishing boats were lost," he said. He added that most of their buffaloes drowned in the floods and the community will now need help to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods.

For the time being, 39 families are crowded together in the few houses that remain standing. To ensure the children have their daily milk, they rent buffaloes from other villages. These rents will, hopefully, be paid for with sacks of rice after the winter harvest in November.

The farmers re-planted their devastated paddy fields in July, just in time for the rainy season. However, the seeds they used were not fit for the high saline content in the soil caused by high sea levels during the cyclone, so the outcome of this harvest is uncertain.

Like the majority of the more than two million people affected by Cyclone Nargis, most families in Kan Thar Yar did not own their own land, but instead cultivated the rice paddies on behalf of rich landowners. As their livelihood also depends on fishing, they have been doubly penalized with the loss of their boats. The planned distribution of fishing boats by the Red Cross is essential to ensure these families can earn a living.

Tools for reconstruction

A narrow mud track led to the long wooden and bamboo house that provides temporary shelter for nine families. With his wife and two children, Ba Shwa lives in a single room in this house that he shares with his parents and his brother's family. In one corner, a small altar had been carefully set up and a statue of Buddha watched over the small community. Zaw, Ba Shwa's brother, introduced himself as a carpenter. As a result of his skills, the whole village will receive help using tools provided by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Once patched-up, these repaired houses will provide protection for the last few weeks of the monsoon.

The next village visited by the Red Cross relief boat was neighbouring Set Kyi Su, where shelter supplies had been delivered a week earlier. It was like a beehive of activity. Proudly using hammers and saws provided by the IFRC, everyone worked tirelessly and damaged roofs were soon covered with strong tarpaulins.

"Before distributing the supplies, we evaluated the needs so as to establish who should take priority, such as the elderly, women raising children on their own, and large families," said Ma Yin Yin Mawhat, a young Red Cross volunteer. So far IFRC and the Myanmar Red Cross Society have distributed 40,000 tool kits in the Ayeyarwady delta, enabling 200,000 people to build themselves a shelter from the monsoon.