“Our biggest problem now is clean water.” Counting the cost of Myanmar’s floods

Published: 11 August 2015 12:27 CET

By Patrick Fuller, IFRC

In the village of Kyau Gon, Aung Zaw is used to living with uncertainty. The 30-year-old farmer lives on the banks of the River Hlang where it flows through Taik Kyi in Myanmar’s Yangon region. With each passing monsoon, there comes the possibility that the river will burst its banks and engulf the surrounding paddy fields. This year, the impact of heavy monsoon rains and Cyclone Komen, which swept in from the Bay of Bengal on 31 July, spelled disaster for Aung Zaw and other farmers across the country.

An estimated one million people in 12 of Myanmar’s 14 regions have been affected by the worst flooding in decades. Aung Zaw’s home is perched high on seven foot tall stilts and for the past two weeks, he and his family have been marooned in water as far as the eye can sea. The rooftops of nearby bamboo and thatch homes are just visible above the waterline.

“In a way we are lucky as we are still in our home,” he says. “Most of our neighbours fled to the evacuation centre in the monastery on the other side of the river. We stayed because I need to protect my cows.”

His six cows are tethered on a nearby embankment, but if the waters continue to rise as they have across Southern Myanmar in recent days, he could lose his most prized assets. Aung Zaw’s situation is typical of many smallholder farmers in rural Myanmar. With his recently planted one acre rice field destroyed, he may have to take a loan from the government to buy seed, fertilizer and hire local labour, but at this time of year he can only plant beans which won’t bring his family sufficient income.

“Our biggest problem now is water. We stored fresh water in big pots which are now swamped; our latrine is also submerged,” he says. “I have to fetch bottled water from the evacuation centre, but now my son is getting ill. With all the water around it’s cold at night and he has a fever.”

When floods strike Myanmar, local monasteries are used as evacuation centres as they are often elevated from surrounding areas. The monastery in Weiy Gyi village is a 20 minute boat ride from Aung Zaw’s village. The local authorities, with support from the Myanmar Red Cross Society, are currently looking after 850 people at the monastery. Conditions are basic but evacuees receive two meals a day.

Daw Mya Saw is sitting on a straw mat on the floor of monastery with her four young children, two of whom are stretched out sleeping next to her. Surrounded by hundreds of other women and children, the heat is oppressive. The 49-year-old widow sought refuge in the monastery at the beginning of August. “Within two hours of the river bursting its banks, the water had come into the house up to my waist,” she says. “We just grabbed what we could and managed to get picked up by a passing boat. It’s overcrowded here and there is no privacy. There are only 10 latrines that everyone has to share.”

Daw Mya Saw’s biggest concern is what will happen to the family when the floods subside and they have to return home.

“I work as a day-labourer on other people’s farms. With no work, I don’t know where I will find money to repair my home,” she says.

In response to the disaster, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a 4 million Swiss franc emergency appeal (4.1 million US dollars) to support the Myanmar Red Cross Society’s relief and recovery activities targeted at 100,000 people in the worst hit regions of Magway, Sagaing, Chin and Rakhine.

Udaya Regmi, IFRC head of delegation in Myanmar, says the operation needs to deal with both immediate aid and long-term recovery. “Over the next month people will need basic relief items, but this will be balanced with distributions of cash to help them get back on their feet,” he says. “Our longer term support will include help to restore livelihoods and to rebuild homes and community infrastructure such as wells, water sources and latrines.”

Since the floods began, the Myanmar Red Cross Society has played a key role in relief efforts, reaching over 50,000 people.

At the monastery in Weiy Gyi, a team of volunteers distributed dignity kits for women. “Women have particular needs in disasters that should not be overlooked,” says Dr Aung Kyaw Htut, Deputy Secretary-General of the Myanmar Red Cross Society, who is overseeing the distribution. “Sanitary towels, underwear and personal hygiene items are essential to the well-being of female evacuees.”