x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Myanmar in misery six months on

Forced labour and extensive land confiscation by the junta have increased the human suffering since the cyclone struck Myanmar.

Community groups believe the Irrawaddy Delta will produce less than 60 per cent of its usual rice output this year.
Community groups believe the Irrawaddy Delta will produce less than 60 per cent of its usual rice output this year.

BANGKOK // Six months after a devastating cyclone hit Myanmar, more than a million people are still living in misery, wondering when things will return to normal. In remote areas along the coastline, villages still receive only intermittent food assistance, according to community workers in the area. Thousands of people are living in makeshift shelters and there are growing concerns about fresh water throughout the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy Delta to the west of Myanmar's main commercial city, Yangon.

Furthermore, international human rights groups have reported an increase in forced labour, forced relocations and extensive land confiscation by the country's military authorities. Nearly 100 community workers who tried to help with the disaster relief efforts are languishing in jail, including Zargana, a comedian and an outspoken critic of the country's rulers. Many children have returned to school, farmers are anxiously waiting to see how their harvest fares and more houses are being built every week, aid workers said. But it will take years before the delta returns to anything like it was.

The UN's World Food Programme estimates it will have to continue to provide food aid to nearly a million people well into next year, said Chris Kaye, the head of its operations in Myanmar. "We are very confident that we are reaching all those presently in need of food assistance on a regular basis." The situation varies from place to place throughout the devastated area, said Ashley Clements, the head of the local branch of World Vision, an international non-governmental organisation. "We're at a turning point now - and attention has to be paid to the longer term, especially providing safe havens for children and secure livelihoods for the people who were left with nothing."

In the past few weeks, one in three villagers interviewed by World Vision researchers in some of the worst affected areas, said they had been forced to reduce the number of meals they ate per day because of a lack of food. Up to 30 per cent of children between five and 11 years are not enrolled in school, while more than half of children aged 12 to 17 were not attending school, according to the World Vision report.

The most critical issue is the approaching rice harvest. While the UN's Forestry and Agriculture Organisation predicts a good, if not bumper, harvest, the farmers are less sanguine. "We will have to wait for the next planting season," said a villager in one of the cyclone-affected areas. "We don't expect much from this one." Myanmar's community groups working in the area believe the whole Irrawaddy area - the rice bowl of Myanmar and once of all Asia - will produce less than 60 per cent of its usual output, and the yield will be significantly affected by the hastily prepared fields, many still not properly drained of salt water.

For many villagers, shelter and clean water remain a constant worry. "An acute shortage of drinking water is the biggest concern," a Myanmar activist said after a recent visit to his home in the Delta. Fewer than 40 per cent of the ponds used by villagers to collect rain water for drinking have been cleansed of salt water, according to a community group working in the area. In three key areas, less than two thirds of people interviewed by World Vision reported having access to safe and clean drinking water.

As many as a million people are still living in makeshift or temporary shelters, aid workers said. "What is true is that every week, more and more people are able to leave their temporary shelter and move into newly built accommodation," said Bridget Gardner, the head of the International Federation of Red Crosses and Red Crescent Societies in Yangon. Many of the cyclone survivors are suffering from trauma. According to the World Vision survey, more than 70 per cent of children are afraid of wind and rain since the disaster in May. "Farmers are reporting that their buffaloes are traumatised and still suffering six months later," Mr Clements said. "So you can only imagine the impact the ordeal is having on the children."

As efforts turn from emergency relief to long-term reconstruction, how much the international community has overpaid because of the government's insistence on maintaining its artificially fixed exchange rate is coming to light. "I estimate the UN lost at least $5 million due to the initial enforcement of the Foreign Exchange Certificates - pocketed by the junta through the government-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank," said Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy and financial system.

The UN's decision to pay local contractors in foreign currency would lead to more corruption through misappropriation and overcharging, Mr Turnell said. Analysts said the aid effort would only worsen the long-term situation for the people of Myanmar and exacerbate the country's debt problems. According to UN surveys, nearly one in every two households was in debt before the cyclone - 32 per cent in urban areas and 55 per cent in the countryside - and this has worsened dramatically since then, as much of the aid, especially to farmers in the form of seeds, fertilisers, ploughs and livestock, has been channelled through government agencies in the form of loans rather than grants.

In three of the worst-affected areas in the Irrawaddy Delta, nearly 40 per cent of local households had sold off some of their assets, and more that 40 per cent had borrowed money for food in the past month. @Email:ljagan@thenational.ae