Seven years after the flood

May 2 marked the seventh anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in Myanmar’s history, coming eighth in the world’s most serious disasters: Cyclone Nargis.

There were a total of 140,000 deaths in 10 townships in Myittha, Irrawaddy, as well as Ks1 billion in damage, according to government reports.

These past seven years have been cruel and gruelling for the survivors. They received delayed aid when the cyclone struck and suffered worse afterwards when the government could not provide practical and effective rehabilitation for the victims. It crippled futures and tore away loved ones.

The struggle for a meal

The main sources of income for the people in the Nargis-affected Myittha Delta are fishing, salt and agriculture. Nargis caused a drastic drop in seafood captured near the shore and smashed seafaring vessels as well as drove away wealthy investors. Now a person who owns a small motorised fishing boat equipped with a fishing net is considered rich.

Kyaw Kyaw, a Thingangyee village fisherman from Laputar Township, said: “After Nargis, it’s very difficult to catch fish near the shore that are worthwhile. The only ones that bite are the fish that we used to throw back in the water. Now we have to make a living selling those. After the hurricane, most of us built patchwork houses using materials from support groups. We received two nets plus a tiny boat. The nets are useless. The boats are inconveniently small. Since we cannot catch enough fish, we have to take loans from lenders at a 10 per cent interest rate. If we catch fish, we have to sell them only to them and they will unfairly set the price but there is nothing we can do. We have to make a living. The children had to be taken out of school because it’s expensive. I heard people would come to the villages to lend money to the poor but so far nothing. If we only get a proper fishing net and a decent boat, it would be so much easier.”

Previously wealthy salt-making bosses who had 40 to 50 workers and built a mini-village for the staff had to stop operations due to falling prices, loss of market share and insufficient capital.

“Salt brings nothing but losses all season. A year after Nargis the salt business thrived but it is all downhill since then. Salt prices plummeted and expenses overtook profits which led to lower wages for the workers so the best workers left. The government is unable to help out financially so we rely on moneylenders with high interest rates. Even the seasonal weather is getting in our way. We stick to this business because we are not skilled in other crafts. The most we can do is maybe raising some prawns and farming although that is very difficult since it is covered in salt water,” said Kyin Htae, a salt worker from Pyinsalu Township.

Farmer Soe Lwin from Pyinsalu said: “Before Nargis, farming was good. Afterwards, the farms were destroyed because every year salt water levels increase. The mice also contribute to the damage. I thought the cyclone took away everything but when I got back from the refugee camp, I found a machine left by Nargis. I fixed it and got back into farming again but of course, the results were poor. The government gave me 40 gallons of diesel and 40 baskets of rice. Most of the aid did not go to the people in need but to those who were cunning. Previously I worked on 60 acres of farmland which produced around 40 buckets per acre. Now the production rate is much lower. Saltwater flooding makes it worse. When the rice touches salt water, quality comes into question so the customers do not want to buy rice from Pyinsalu. The situation is a far cry from the past where rice traders lined up to buy Pyinsalu rice. We have no choice but to borrow money at high interest rates. It is a long spiral of debt when you combine your unprofitable business with having to pay high interests. If the blockades to stop the salt water work, there might be a chance because every year after the disaster, the farms are flooded. So the farmers cannot only rely on rice farming, they have to do things like making makeshift prawn farms as well”.

Laputa businesses are still going downhill consistently. Crab farms see the most development but due to the lack of financial prosperity, the farm owners are unable to expand. Only wealthy investors from the border are able to expand their soft-shelled crab farms whilst the locals cannot step up from rivers and streams. Many farms, yearly flooded by salt water, are being sold for Ks600,000 per acre to crab farm owners.

Silence of the traditions

Traditional festivals and events have become rare. A popular source of release is illegal two-digit gambling. Many gambling dens exist and operate out in the open with residents gambling away what little amount they earn.

“The annual Ka Htein festival has withered away. Our religion says that if you do not donate because you have nothing, you will get nothing but in these times of hardship, donations are a long way off. It was not like this before. There was at least something going on once a month,” said Kwinthonesint village head Than Htwe.

Many people have left the region where their families have lived for generations before. Six out of ten youths on an average have left for Yangon. There are empty houses in every village. Some families went over the border because of the difficulties of supporting loved ones in a city like Yangon.

Myoe Khine from Salu Sate village said: “Most do not go to another country if they do not already have a connection there. The main destination is Yangon. They work mainly in welding or garment factories. There is nothing else to do here but their new lives in the city are hard. They say they receive around Ks4,000 to 5,000 per day but since living expenses are high, they cannot send money to their families here. They just left because there are no jobs here.”

Kay Kay Chit, 16, from Old Thingangyee village, said: “My mother’s health was bad so I quit school. I wanted to open a bookstore or a chewing betel shop but my family cannot afford it. So I am pondering whether I will go with my aunt to Yangon to get a job there. I heard you can get jobs in garment factories and you only have to pay Ks10,000 for training. So I am saving up money. I love this village but I can no longer stay here.”

Broken education

Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. For the children of Nargis, education is falling behind every year. The main reason is the insufficient number of teachers. Gaining a diploma is fantasy for most families.

Tin Ohm, a reserve firefighter from Pyinsalu, said: “Education in Pyinsalu is extremely difficult. There is a high school but no teachers. It was only opened in 2004 and before Nargis, there was a 40 per cent average of students who passed the 11th grade. This year, only one student passed out of 35. The standards are low. Parents cannot afford to pay for school. Diploma holders are hard to find these days. Even if the children pass 11th grade and receive their diplomas, there is nothing to do except catch crabs and fish. If the kids pass 11th grade, they have a shot at working in the city. If there were enough teachers, education could be resurrected."

The floundering economy causes people to lose interest in education, which in turns hampers the growth and development of the region. The young believe that even if they got to university, there would be no employment for them.

Thant Zin Htun, a Myanmar literature second year student, said: “I wanted to get a degree so I juggled school and work. It is extremely costly to go to school in the city. Even after that, what job can I get? No one wants to catch crabs after graduating. I will continue my studies. After that I hope to become a public servant.”

Most parents want their children to be educated and successful but when it comes to survival, it becomes a huge hindrance.

Myint Thein, a salt worker from Migyaung Aine village, said: “In this village, the school only goes up until seventh grade. After that, they have to go to school in the town so for most, education stops there because it too expensive. I have twin sons. I cannot afford to keep them in school so they had to quit this year. Now they help me catch crabs. Next year, I will put them back in school.”

Even though middle school education is free, due to the lack of school staff, parents have to hire teachers. Almost all the villages pool money in order to hire teachers.

Disaster preparation

The government has yet to prepare for another Nargis. There are insufficient cyclone shelters.

Saing Win Aung, Salusate village cluster chief, said: “Recently, strong winds suddenly blew and the whole village that panicked, ran out into the roads, some even into the fields. When Nargis happened, similar winds blew so it is not surprising that they were afraid. In this region, any news of the weather comes from the radio. The phone lines are abysmal. Even the good phone line at the shore disconnects randomly. Therefore emergency communications are out of the question. There is no such thing as someone coming to warn you of an approaching hurricane. All you can do is listen to the radio and run like crazy to the shelters.”

Some shelters are already breaking down, sinking or leaking.

“The whole village decided that if another cyclone comes, we would rely on the nearest sturdy tree because we are afraid the shelter will break. The roof is leaking, the floor wood is old and the foundations are sinking,” says Kyaw Htoo from Kwinthonesint village.

These troubles show a lack of responsibility from the government. The storm of troubles being faced by the victims of Nargis today correlate with the weak recovery plans after the cyclone hit.

“Cyclone warnings only come through the radio. We have GSM and MEC telecommunications tower but the machinery is broken so phones are just useless junk. Doing our jobs is greatly hindered by the lack of telecommunications.” said a tea shop owner from Pyinsalu.

Although warning alarms and loudspeakers are installed in some villages, the roads are still poor. Some remote villages have no shelters. They risk their lives just by living there.

It is impossible for the region to grow if the economy and education make no progress. Visits to the Laputa villages prove the government’s recovery plans are not good enough.

Furthermore, the government is relocating victims to a newly constructed village which is 5 miles instead of 3 miles from the township. They are only being given 30 square feet of land each.

Much more hard work is needed if the impact of Nargis is not going to be felt a further seven years on.