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Myanmar recovering two years after Cyclone Nargis

30 April 2010

Dozens of children in Myanmar stand in a school yardCyclone Nargis, which struck Myanmar on 2-3 May 2008, was one of the country’s worst natural disasters in generations. It left 84,500 people dead and 53,800 people missing, and affected up to 2.4 million people – devastating their livelihoods and leaving the country with the mammoth task of recovery.Two years on, a Red Cross operation to reconstruct Myanmar has so far given support to thousands of people and many communities.

Alasdair Gordon-Gibson, who is heading the Red Cross’ recovery operation, said: “Already we have seen one reconstruction project – rebuilding 24 schools – nearing completion at the end of next month, in time for the start of the new school term in June 2010.

“The schools have been rebuilt to a much higher standard than the buildings which collapsed in the cyclone. They are designed to resist storms, floods and low-level cyclones, and also earthquakes to a level predicted in each area in the future. We estimate the number of pupils per school varies from about 80 to 200, with an average of about 130 pupils per school,” Gibson added.

The Red Cross recovery programme has another year left to run and is led by the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS), with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The Federation and MRCS have been providing shelter to thousands of families, as well as implementing a wide variety of cash-for-work programmes, where beneficiaries earn income while restoring destroyed roads, bridges and jetties.

A few ducks and a few bucks

The Red Cross works with communities most in need to make sure that the most vulnerable (elderly, disabled, women) are given the right assistance and to support the community as a whole. The work to date has not only helped communities begin to recover but also has seen the local economy and markets rejuvenate.

Farmer Daw Lay Lay Khin, who was helped under the Red Cross asset recovery programme, bears testimony to the turn-around in economic fortunes. 

Only a few of Daw Lay Lay Khin’s ducks survived Cyclone Nargis. And like so many others, she had to sell off her few belongings to raise money for urgent needs in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Recently, the Red Cross asset recovery programme provided her with 20 new ducks, as well as offering her training in organised duck farming and a small cash grant.

The ducks have already started generating her an income. They lay an average of 15 eggs per day, which are sold at the local market.

Clean water, no diseases

Providing clean water and improving sanitation have been two of the main recovery activities after Cyclone Nargis, going hand in hand with supporting and promoting good hygiene practices.

During the first few months, the challenge was to clean village ponds and erect new fences around them. During the dry season, more construction work could take place, digging wells and building water tanks. As the water in the river gets salty during the dry season, it was necessary to distribute clean drinking water and purification tablets, which continued for a number of months after the disaster.

Alasdair Gordon-Gibson explained: “In all of the affected communities, Red Cross teams have worked closely with the villagers to clean and construct water sources, and to provide information and training on the use and maintenance of the new structures.

“As part of the school-building programme, for example, we also provide four latrines and septic tanks raised above normal flood level for each school. We have also had to drill to depths as deep as 600 to 800 feet to put in tube-wells to supply clean (unsalinated) drinking water,” he added.

The improvement in the water quality and prevention of water-borne diseases is clear, according to farmer Unga Pyawt.

He said: “Since shortly after Nargis and even now, we have not had any serious cases of diarrhoea or other symptoms related to an unhygienic environment. We used to use the field or bushes as our toilets, but now everybody has changed their behaviour and uses the new latrines instead. And we are much healthier as a result.”

Power of preparedness

The Cyclone Nargis experience has made Ko Khin Maung Oo – a Red Cross volunteer since 2003 when he attended a basic first aid course – realise the value of preparedness and training.

“It is important to be well prepared for emergencies – to co-ordinate well and support villagers properly,” he said.

In December 2008, along with 29 other villagers, Ko Khin Maung Oo attended a community-based disaster risk management training. During the five-day training course, he and his fellow villagers were instructed in disaster management, preparedness and response, as well as the role of Red Cross volunteers during an emergency.

“We learned about reducing risks at our local level, how to ensure that there is enough food and safe drinking water, and searching for and rescuing survivors,” he recalled.

Participants were also taught how to provide relief assistance and to manage an emergency operation.

“The training has given us the confidence to face future emergencies,” said Ko Khin Maung Oo.

Find out more about Cyclone Nargis


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