Myanmar: Six months after Nargis - have we done enough?

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Nilar Andrea Chit Tun, Communications Officer, FAO Myanmar

Before hopping on a plane for my assignment, most people would speak of Myanmar in clichés. If you ask someone around the world, most would imagine images of golden pagodas, precious gems, water buffaloes, rice paddies, but also politics, poverty and misery. And after the references to Kipling, the Road to Mandalay, the Bridge over the River Kwai and the tired jokes about the Golden Triangle, I noticed a sudden change, and a look of sadness that cannot even be described in measure with thoughts of realization: Isn't that where they had that cyclone? What's happened to Myanmar? Are they ok?

After five weeks here, I still have so many questions. I arrived in Yangon in early October, as a Communications Officer, young and idealistic: reporting on the good deeds of the world community financed from official grants or public donations. Working as a member of an interdisciplinary team of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) together with emergency and technical experts, I expected that my revelations would be relatively straightforward, clear and simple. I could not have been more naive.

The British Department for International Development, the European Commission, Italy , Sweden, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and so many others have donated to the FAO, other UN agencies and numerous aid and non-governmental organizations supporting the innovations of the UN Cluster system. Thanks to a political umbrella provided by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the government relaxed the issuance of visas and people have arrived in droves with their respective organizations that have together set in a dedicated force since Nargis slammed into and dismantled the poverty stricken delta region. And yet there's a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I cannot ignore.

The sheer colossal size of the problems at hand - 2.4 million people affected in an area as large as Southern France. Myanmar is slightly larger than France, so imagine for a moment that the Mediterranean coastline no longer has roads, electricity, clean water, medical care, and food. Imagine that France has been slammed and the entire area from Barcelona to Marseille has been cut off from the rest of the world and only then can one imagine the size of the area hit by cyclone Nargis. Now imagine that the only way to access this is by boat from Greece and that you can't drive in from Switzerland or Spain. You can begin to imagine the difficulties faced in accessing the region and reaching over two million people in desperate and urgent need of life-saving support - health services, water and food.

In addition, the people need to get back on their feet: families need to eat their daily portion of rice and fish, and thus need to earn a decent living; children need to return to school, and villages need to be rebuilt.

The Myanmar delta is a most difficult area to get people and goods moved around and begs the question - are all of these foreign aid groups really going to make a difference for the people most in immediate need, and for the Myanmar delta region in the long run?

And soon other considerations entered into the fray, such as where do we start, who is the most vulnerable, who needs what and where, how do we get the goods to the most vulnerable and what about the politics?

Let me make this clear: I am not a politician. In any emergency situation of the scope of the cyclone Nargis, humanitarian assistance comes first and only. Political considerations have no place here - and recent history has shown us the way forward as in the case of the 2004 Asian tsunami or the Chinese earthquake in Sichuan. I am a human being trying to help other human beings that are literally stuck in the mud. So we buy and distribute rice seeds and fertilizers, buffaloes to plough the field, and other animals for consumption and resale. But in all this someone first has to assess what is needed, where and when by the farmers and fishers who have survived the storm surges.

So we need technical assistance for rice growing, animal health and disease prevention. Farmers, first and foremost, are the people who can tell what is needed, and local civilian government staff are effectively the only ones in the know as to how to get around and deliver the goods, while international experts can translate these needs into jargon used by aid agencies. So we provided emergency technical assistance in conjunction with the Myanmar authorities. We've given the seeds to plant, the fertilizer to make it grow and the buffaloes to plough-so we're done right? Yes, but not enough by any means.

The continued global responsibility here is massive-no other way to put it. We cannot simply deliver goods, scribble a multitude of reports on how well everything went with mildly scathing gap analysis and then consider our work done. There is an entire group of traumatized citizens that need help beyond the tangible things we see on TV: the power tillers and the fishing nets and the logos on t-shirts. We see the images and yet we miss the big picture.

The Myanmar delta screams - are we going to be ok? Until the answer is yes, our mission is incomplete.

Looking at the scale of destruction of the physical infrastructures - homes, roads, bridges, embankments, river jetties and fish landing piers, public services - schools, hospitals, markets - and public utilities - irrigation schemes, electricity; it will take many years to reconstruct the delta. The livelihood of the people, women, men and children are crucially dependent on these infrastructures and services. But all or most of it was washed away in five-meter storm surges.

While the cyclone was a natural disaster, human interventions over several decades had created several conditions for maximizing the destructive effects of the cyclone. Just to give one example, the potentially protective mangroves had been cut away and widely used as charcoal in the absence of fuel and electricity. Food was already scarce and food insecurity has been a precarious daily concern for the majority of the delta people long before the cyclone hit.

This is where the indispensible longer-term work is, building back better. The emergency is not over-but we are shifting gears from the immediate needs to mid- and longer-term rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. Now we have to focus on the practical, beyond this year's planting and harvesting season.

Fertilizers need to be imported and are expensive. Introducing bio-composting, made by the farm families and used on the family rice fields is natural, cheap to make and healthy for the harvest. This is just one example of moving from the immediate to the longer term: compost 101 is thus included in technical assistance provided by FAO. Going green does not always mean laying on train tracks that lead to the nuclear reactors. It can be something very practical after all.

Our goals can not be reached alone: the community, local governments and civil society must play a pro-active role or all is lost. Teaching villagers about responsible fishing practices and conserving mangroves is important, but only the beginning of a long term process that involves monitoring and evaluation from both sides. Socio-economic considerations also need to be addressed.

Donor emergency funds will run dry. This is inevitable. So proper sustainable planning is imperative to all projects, not only in this crisis, but in all crises. We have learned from the Asian tsunami, Bangladesh Cyclone, the Pakistan and China Earthquakes respectively. No amount of assistance is sustainable without the proper planning and follow-up. Affected people and communities are the ultimate beneficiaries and actors, The UN and aid agencies must make the effort too. The UN is not the world's babysitter or mother-and seeing it as either role creates impossible expectations from all parties involved. We are not here to save the world; we are here to give them a hand up to getting back - not only to where they used to be - but even a bit better than before.

But that longer term works needs corresponding vision and commitment by donors: it requires a vision by the international community to be engaged for the long run and jointly with the affected poor farmers and fishers work for the future.

Of utmost importance is what happens when the next natural tragedy strikes? Will Myanmar be left in the inbox of humanitarians that are scurrying off to the next hotbed of human strife? Yes, these questions do see the glass as half-empty-but they should! Donor funds are pouring into the isolated region and before we get excited with political delusions, inapplicable long-term ideals and lots of live birds and fertilizer, should we not evaluate what is realistic long term given the situation here?

So the main question... have we done enough? Even with a shortfall of 27 Million dollars the FAO has been able to distribute a great amount of aid to the most vulnerable and the UN has been able to deliver some assistance to all of the storm damaged regions in one form or another.

So yes, we the FAO, the UN, and all of the other acronyms are doing our part. The point that must be driven to donors and the world alike is this-we still need to do so much more.