Myanmar: Six months after, survivors of Nargis face new risks

by Solomon

New Delhi - Despite surviving deadly Cyclone Nargis, which ravaged Burma's Southwestern coastal area six months ago, survivors say they are faced with a new threat - a shortage of clean water.

A survivor of the storm in Laputta Township in the Irrawaddy delta said that while they continue facing shortages of food and inadequate shelter, the main threat has shifted to a shortage of clean water.

"For drinking water, rain is the only source, but with rains stopping after this month, we are faced with a new threat of a shortage of water," the survivor said.

Though several international aid agencies along with the government have been focusing on cleaning contaminated wells, the survivor said the wells are hardly clean and they are almost impossible for people to use.

"Ponds were totally destroyed by sea water and are thoroughly salinated. It's difficult to completely clean such water," he added.

Save the Children, a UK-based non-governmental organization that has been helping cyclone survivors in Southwestern Burma, on Thursday echoed similar concerns to that of the survivor, saying water shortage is posing a new threat to the survivors.

Save the Children said as the dry season begins this month in Burma, families will have few options for obtaining clean drinking water, increasing the risk of disease.

"The water shortage that typically comes with the dry season is being exacerbated by the unusually high salt content in water sources in the delta, a lingering result of the cyclone," said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children's country director in Burma.

"The lack of clean water will directly impact the health of children. Scarce family resources will be further strained if they must purchase water, as will relationships among communities if they must compete for this resource," added Kirkwood in a press statement.

Besides a shortage of water, Save the Children said restoring the means of livelihood for survivors is also another major concern as many cyclone victims, despite surviving deadly waves, have permanently lost their jobs.

"Restoring the means to earn a living is vital to helping vulnerable families pay additional expenses, including medical costs," said Kirkwood, urging international and national donors to pour in more funding to help survivors.

"It is expensive to rebuild one's life, and even more so for the poor. Any new financial obligations could force people to make difficult choices in regard to the food they buy or whether they can send their children to school," Kirkwood added.

A local volunteer in Rangoon, who visited the cyclone ravaged townships of Laputta, Bogale and Pyapon two weeks ago, said humanitarian assistance for the survivors has drastically slowed, leaving many survivors finding it difficult to continue rebuilding their lives.

"I see that many survivors are going back to the farms to plant, and fishermen want to return to the sea, but the problem is that there is no support to help them resume their work," the volunteer said.

He said that while villagers do not really prioritize their houses, they face psychological problems due to not being able to resume their work. Farmers find it difficult to go back to the fields because of a lack of cattle and little fertile ground for the seed.

Similarly, fishermen are also stranded as they have no means to construct or purchase new fishing boats, the volunteer said. He added that several local volunteer groups have also ceased helping people in the delta.

However, he added, "But I think, in the overall situation, people aren't doing that bad, not as much as we initially thought."

But a survivor from Thingangyi village in Laputta Township, who deals with the salt business, said aid supplies to his village stopped two months ago.

He said that while he has just barely resumed his salt business, he is unable to make it run smoothly as he lacks the needed capital.

"We got about 100,000 kyat distributed by the government for our business out of their promise to provide 300,000 kyat for one saltern acre," he said, adding that the government had given the money on loan, leaving them to worry over how to repay the money when business is not good.

Meanwhile, the Tripartite Core Group, composed of the United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Burmese government, has reportedly begun conducting the second phase of a survey in the delta.

The TCG, which released a report after conducting a Post Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA), said the emergency rescue phase needed to be done on a parallel basis with the reconstruction process.

However several activists have publicly questioned the findings and methodology of PONJA.

Ko Shwe, a Karen environmentalist who compiled a report after a survey trip to the delta in June, said the PONJA report failed to include human rights abuses committed by the Burmese junta during relief operations, including the inadequate and partial distribution of aid supplies to survivors.