Thu 30 Apr 2009
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
A year after the devastating cyclone that laid waste large swaths of Burma, more than half a million people are still living in makeshift shacks which are unlikely to withstand the imminent monsoons, according to Save the Children.
Sea water has inundated wells throughout the Irrawaddy delta and turned almost 2m acres (800,000 hectares) of Burma’s most fertile rice paddies into salt-contaminated wastelands.
Aid coordinators say 240,000 people in remote villages still rely on drinking water that is delivered by boat in large rubber bladders. In some places diesel-powered filtration plants work around the clock, turning brackish estuary water into drinkable water.
When cylone Nargis hit Burma on 2 May last year, killing at least 138,000 people and devastating the lives of millions more, the refusal of the ruling junta to allow foreign aid into the affected area left observers pessimistic about the future of those living there.
For more than three weeks after thedisaster Burma’s generals refused to grant visas to foreign relief workers and blocked aid from reaching the delta, the worst-hit region.
The government eventually agreed to allow emergency teams into the delta after intervention by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, but scepticism remained about whether aid really would reach the 2.4 million people severely affected by the cyclone.
Nevertheless, a year on from the disaster foreign NGOs working on the ground say the relief effort has gone far better than they dared hope.
“What has been achieved over the last year has much exceeded what anybody predicted would be possible,” said Paul Sender, Merlin’s country director for Burma, based in Rangoon. “There was initially a lot of concern about whether anybody would be able to work here, or monitor where the aid was going, but we have found that the aid has been getting through to the people who need it.”
Sender, who is also head of the UN’s “health cluster” in Burma, said that the predicted outbreak of malnutrition and disease had not happened. “Figures from the clinics show there hasn’t been a significant increase either, in the past year, which reflects the fact that there are health provisions in place.” .
Dan Collison, director of Save the Children’s emergency programme in Burma, said: “Not one Save the Children truck was stopped from reaching its destination, and in those first few weeks we reached 160,000 people, even when we weren’t supposed to. We have no evidence at all that the regime confiscated or misappropriated aid, even in the early days.”
This optimistic view is not shared by everyone. A report from Johns Hopkins University in the US this year, which collated information from interviews by local researchers working undercover in the delta, found “systematic obstruction of aid, wilful acts of theft and sale of relief supplies, forced relocation, and the use of forced labour for reconstruction projects, including forced child labour”.
One of the report’s authors, Chris Beyrer, Professor of Epidemiology, said that funding for the years to come was also a big cause for concern. “My biggest frustration working here is that there looks as though there will not be nearly enough money to continue our service provision. The recovery plan for health for the next three years is predicted to cost $54m (Â£37m), but so far all that has been made available from donors is $6m,” he said.
And despite the broad optimism among aid workers, there is no sign that Burma is moving towards democracy – as was underlined by the EU’s decision in April to renew sanctions against Burma.
Numerous human rights abuses continue to be documented. In November Zarganar, a popular comedian active in Burma’s democracy movement, was sentenced to 45 years in jail after being found to have violated the Electronics Act, which regulates electronic communications. He was detained last year for criticising publicly the government’s slow response to cyclone Nargis.