Cyclone Nargis Continues to Devastate Burma

Three years after the most damaging cyclone ever to make landfall in Burma, the region where it smashed ashore remains devastated, a fact that can be laid directly at the door of the dictatorship that rules the country.

"What we need is seeds and the resources to successfully restart our farming," said Win Maung, one of the Irrawaddy Delta residents who has not been able to fully resume his normal livelihood since Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. The Burmese government has largely declined to supply the farmers’ needs.

Destruction from Nargis was estimated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at more than US$10 billion, which made it the most damaging cyclone ever recorded in the region, taking the lives of at least 138,000 persons. The disaster was complicated by the initial refusal of the Burmese junta that then ruled the country to allow international aid workers in to provide relief to the devastated area. It was estimated at the time that 2.5 million people were left living in poor conditions, most without shelter, enough food, drinking water or medical care.

Although the figure of 138,000 dead is used widely, it is simply that the Burmese government gave up counting at that point. It wasn’t until May 19, 16 days after the typhoon hit, that the Burmese, in a major concession after earning universal international criticism for blocking foreign aid, agreed to open its doors to medical teams from Asean countries.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates at the time that Nargis devastated 65 percent of the country's rice paddies and, because it hit at the height of the growing season, it ruined rice already brought into the warehouses.

The junta did appeal to aid organizations to provide aid in planting the fall and late summer harvests, which were affected by continuing bad weather. Some of the aid that did manage to get into the country turned up in Burmese black markets.

Although farmers have begun to work their land once again, conditions have made it difficult for them to farm without losing money, according to local people from the area where Nargis hit. Unlike most governments, the Burmese did not supply low-interest loans to farmers to restart the agricultural economy.

"We took loans from the rich people to start farming and planting, but the amount of rice we can produce is going down day by day. So farmers are caught in a vicious circle of loans and the benefits are going to the rich people," Win Maung said.

Chit one, a resident of the Township of Labutta, where at least 80,000 people were killed, said local farmers lost everything in the cyclone. Speaking to The Irrawaddy on May4, he said, "We depend on our farms for income, but after Nargis we don’t have cows, tractors, harrows and even ploughs. All we have is land filled with silt."

Dr. Phone Win, the managing director of Mingalar Myanmar, a nonprofit organization promoting humanitarian activities in the delta area, said that the required amount of money for rehabilitation is more than US $1 billion, but only been US$500 million has been

invested. The needs in the damaged area are still high, he said.

The farmers received a further setback after Cyclone Nargis because the unseasonable weather did not stop, a local farmer from Maw Kyun Township said.

"There was heavy rain in the dry season and it destroyed our crops. We had to borrow money to survive and we owed more and more amounts of money," he said.

According to residents of Labutta and Bokalay townships, the local authorities charged money for distributed material and equipment such as fiber boats, tractors, tool sets, etc.

"A boat which can go to the sea cost 600,000 kyat ($713), a smaller one is 300,000 kyat ($356) and a tractor is 500,000 kyat ($594). The prices are recognized by the authorities and we can buy things on installment," a resident from Labutta said.

Ohn Kyaing, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy (NLD) who led the organization's relief efforts in the delta area after the cyclone, said that the other requirements in the Delta area are transportation and improvements in the education system.

"If another disaster happens, the roads are not good enough to flee. Transportation is the main thing which has to be promoted," Ohn Kyaing said.

According to UN data, 22 semi-permanent schools have been built in Pyapon, Dedaye and Bokalay townships with the support international social foundations, and five with the support of the Japan Habitat Association. These projects serve more than 6,000 children from the Cyclone Nargis affected area.

With reporting from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement