Myanmar: Temporary shelters need permanent upgrade

News and Press Release
Originally published
MHAWBI, 20 October 2008 (IRIN) - Five months after Cyclone Nargis deluged Myanmar's low-lying Ayeyarwady Delta, tens of thousands of people are still in need of proper shelter.

Myint Aung, 35, lost a child and everything he owned to the category four cyclone, which caused the worst natural disaster in living memory. With no money to rebuild, the landless farmer has ended up squatting by the roadside outside Mhawbi village, 10 minutes from Pyapon town, on the Pyapon River, with hundreds of others with just a 5x6ft wide tarpaulin for shelter.

"This [tarpaulin] hut is unlikely to last more than two or three months," he complained, pointing to the already tattered roof, only 4ft high. He said his two children were unable to stay inside in the afternoon due to the stifling heat.

Before the cyclone, he and his family lived in a simple thatched bamboo house near the paddy field of their employer.

Nargis affected more than two million people, made tens of thousands homeless and left more than 140,000 dead or missing when it hit the southern coastal region in May.

According to the Post Nargis Joint Assessment report (PONJA) by the UN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Myanmar government, the cyclone affected 800,000 housing units - 450,000 were totally destroyed, while another 350,000 were damaged.

The worst-hit houses were built of wood and bamboo, accounting for half of all housing in the stricken areas.

While the initial response by UN agencies and NGOs to providing immediate life-saving shelter was remarkable, the lifespan of the materials provided is only six to 12 months and some of the plastic sheeting is already deteriorating and tearing.

Most households do not have the resources to rebuild or repair more durable shelters, either because they do not have cash or because materials, such as thatch, are not readily available.

"When it rains heavily, we get flooded inside the hut because rainwater flows inside, and also rainwater enters through the tattered plastic sheets," said Aye Khaing, 36. Her family of eight sleep on plastic sheeting on the dirt floor.

These makeshift shelters often consist of little more than sticks and thatch with perhaps a plastic sheet. Upgrading them would mean rebuilding with decent materials, bamboo, wood and possibly tin roofs.

Upgrading vital

"The families have already exhausted their savings, and are not able to keep repairing their homes, let alone bring them up to a comfortable standard," said Annie Scarborough, shelter coordinator for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

"There are tens of thousands of people whose shelters need to be upgraded so they can last one or two years," David Evans, acting head of the UN's Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, told IRIN in Yangon, the former capital.

He explained that at least 20 percent of families whose houses were totally destroyed were categorised as vulnerable. For these families of pregnant women, the sick, elderly and disabled, it was not enough to supply building materials - they needed support to construct a durable shelter to last at least 24 months.

UN-HABITAT said serious advocacy work was needed to convince donors to fund longer-term shelter solutions. "We hope a much wider range of donors will understand the priority for shelter provision and support early recovery process and reduce the burden which currently rests with a small number of donor countries," Evans said.

So far the only funds received had been US$600,000 to lead the shelter coordination cluster. Another $400,000 will be available in November for training artisans and building demonstration shelters with Disaster Risk Reduction features.

Now that the emergency phase is over, surveys are under way that will help to assess the shelter needs. Arjan Blankan, recovery delegate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said: "We will find out who hasn't got adequate shelter, and we will try to address this issue."

In the meantime, many families are worried about the coming winter as without proper walls they fear the cold will affect the health of children and the elderly.