Myanmar: Survival in the cyclone's shadow

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By John Sparrow in the Ayeyarwady delta

While emergency relief remains essential to Cyclone Nargis survivors, longer-term support is required in the Ayeyarwady delta. Destitute Myanmar villagers are going into debt as they struggle to stand on their feet again. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies stresses livelihood needs in its latest revised appeal.

On the long boat trip to Labutta town from his coastal village, Aung Kyaw Thu had thought to himself: Why us?

In less than three and a half years, his village had been hit by three disasters. First there had been the Indian Ocean tsunami, then Mala - the 2006 cyclone that had hit the coast of Myanmar with winds of 185 kilometres an hour - and then had come the worst of them all: Cyclone Nargis.

His village of Poe Laung was still standing. Just. On the bottom southeast corner of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) delta, Nargis had almost removed the settlement from the map. From 780 families, 305 people had died and only a dozen solid dwellings remained, all of them seriously damaged.

It was far worse than the tsunami. As Aung Kyaw Thu explained, 'The tsunami happened fast. Huge waves swept in and dragged things away as the water retreated. The cyclone and the sea surge kept coming.'

As the future of Poe Laung hung by a thread, the 30-year-old Myanmar Red Cross volunteer had come to Labutta for help. Some aid had reached them, rough shelters had been built from the wreckage of homes and tarpaulin, and there was food aid enough to survive on. But it wasn't sufficient. Poe Laung needed more shelter material, to keep its people dry in the rainy season, and more basic goods to help them cope.

'I need tarpaulins and kitchen sets,' Aung told colleagues at Labutta's main Red Cross warehouse.

The warehouse had both, but their stock was earmarked for planned distributions. More was in the pipeline from Yangon and they'd supply Aung from that. He'd have to wait a few days, however.

'Can I help in the meantime?' he asked.

Next morning Aung Kyaw Thu was heading upriver in an open boat to lead a distribution in the village of Shwe Pyi Tha. He was an experienced hand and Labutta, under pressure, could use him.

On the way he said very little. His thoughts, he confessed, were with Poe Laung. The deaths had traumatized many people, and the village economy had been ruined. Farmers, fishermen and traders had lost all they had. Aung, a fisherman himself, had lost two boats and his nets.

'All people can do for the moment is survive on the food aid,' he said.

In Shwe Pyi Tha, a small riverside community of 335 families, the population had done more than survive. Some 200 homes had been reported destroyed or severely damaged by the cyclone and apparently much had been rebuilt. But for all that, emergency relief remained essential and anxious villagers besieged the Red Cross as Aung and his colleagues began distribution from a jetty.

Rebuilding simple homes is one thing. Lives and livelihoods take time and, behind a semblance of returning normality, another story emerged. Rather than making progress some villagers were falling back, going into debt in attempts to recover by themselves. Like Poe Laung, Shwe Pyi Tha illustrated why a newly revised emergency appeal from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies places support for livelihoods among the longer-term priorities.

The village's long main street did contain signs of recovery. Little shop houses seemed to be back in business but it was doubtful they could prosper in a village that depended on fetching its food from the World Food Programme in Labutta.

Than Aye was most certainly struggling. She was selling vegetables from the front of her family's temporary shelter. Across the road, on the waterfront, her old home had contained a general store but everything had gone with the wind and the floodwater.

She and her husband had begun to rebuild. There was a frame of a house but not much more. 'We have to go slowly. We can't afford to do it quickly,' she said. She estimated she needed the equivalent of US$ 1,000 to replace what they had, and all the small change she earned from the sale of vegetables was needed for daily survival.

She had borrowed from friends and relatives to pay for what had been done. She'd repay them when she could afford to.

The price rises were not helping. With a huge demand for them, the prices of poles and palm thatch panels had doubled since Nargis. Someone was making a killing in building supplies but it was at the cost of the cyclone survivors.

Later in the day, as Aung distributed relief in yet another small village, a casual labourer earning less than a dollar a day said he had borrowed US$60 from a landowner to finish rebuilding his modest home.

He was rightfully proud of his achievement. He had recovered poles and palm thatch from the destruction and done all the work himself.

How he would repay the US$60 was unclear. Since he cannot save from his subsistence income, he will most likely work it off. His servitude will only be the greater.