Friday, May 2, 2014

Myanmar remembers Cyclone Nargis six years on

May 2 marks six years since Cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc on Myanmar’s southern coast, leading to one of the country’s worst natural and humanitarian disasters in recorded history.

A low pressure area in the Bay of Bengal had been gathering strength over several days and the tropical storm finally made landfall in the Ayeyawady delta on Friday May 2, 2008.
Strong winds of over 120 miles per hour, heavy rain and flooding blasted the densely populated delta area, resulting in at least 138,000 deaths (thousands still uncounted) with many more left homeless and without water, power, food or sanitation.

Cyclone Nargis sent a storm surge sweeping up the Ayeyawady delta region, affecting Yangon, Bago, Mon and Kayin regions as well, causing catastrophic destruction, loss of life and property. 

The military junta at the time was attempting to pass a new constitution and was ill prepared, initially denying reports of the magnitude of the disaster and then actively censoring information. Its inadequate response was the main cause of the humanitarian disaster that followed. 

“The death toll was high not only because of the cyclone but also because of the poor evacuation and relief effort. Even I was lucky to survive,” said Nargis survivor Zaw Min from Thingalay village near the delta.

Relief efforts were slowed for political reasons as Myanmar's military rulers initially resisted international aid reaching affected areas. When they finally allowed in limited supplies, many with close ties to the military profited by selling food and materials provided by international organisations.

After Nargis, many farms in the fertile delta region were destroyed when salt water entered into the soil. Farming equipment was also destroyed and farmers faced a shortage of money forcing many to become destitute. The effects can be seen until this day. 

“The paddy yields still don’t reach to that of before the cyclone Nargis. No matter how many acres a farmer possesses, the government gives only Ks 1 million. It is not easy to yield more than the present amount,” said farmer Hla Htwe from Thakethaung village in Ngapudaw Township.

It is not easy to go back the time before the cyclone Nargis. Despite the government providing loans of Ks 300,000 (US$ 300) per acre to farmers and salt producers, 100 out of 800 could not repay the money. This has left salt growers to surrender their plots to wealthy businessmen.  

The Ayeyawaddy region remains a poor region of mainly working class people such as fishermen, farmers and salt workers. Most can’t afford to send their children to school. Healthcare is also largely lacking. 

 Tens of thousands of people were killed due to Cyclone Nargis though officials refused to reveal the true cost of the disaster due to their inadequate response and holding back of relief aid. 

The military, however, did get their constitution after pushing ahead with the referendum on May 10 despite the thousands left homeless, starving and without sanitation.

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