SHAW CHAUNG, Myanmar (Reuters) - For most of the survivors of Cyclone Nargis, the annual monsoon rains that have lashed Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta for the last six months only compounded the misery.
The makeshift tarpaulin shelters have leaked constantly, rice stocks damaged by the May 2 storm have not dried out, and the roads have become rivers of mud, further preventing distribution of aid to the 2.4 million people affected.
But life without the rains could be even worse.
Many village wells and ponds throughout the densely populated rice-growing region remain contaminated by sea water and the rain, collected in jars, plastic sheets or tarpaulins slung outside huts, were the only source of fresh drinking water.
Now, with the rainy season coming to an end this month, aid agencies are warning of a renewed threat of diseases such as typhoid and diarrhea from dirty drinking water.
In most cases, destitute villagers have saved enough rain water to last a month, they say. With no money to buy bottled water, their options are bleak.
“If we run out of water, we’ll just have to boil the pond water and drink it,” one villager, who did not wish to be named, said in Shaw Chaung, a cluster of homes near the delta town of Labutta, 140 km (85 miles) southwest of Yangon.
“We haven’t made any other plans,” he said.
British disaster agency Merlin says it has installed six treatment units in the worst affected areas capable of producing 34,000 liters of drinking water a day from salty water, but says that is just a fraction of overall needs.
“Shipping water through the delta in barges may be the most effective and rapid means to reach those communities lacking fresh water,” said Andre Steele, Merlin’s water and sanitation adviser.
Even in good years, villagers in the southern delta have had to buy water when ponds dry up. Now, prices are likely to be higher than ever because so many boats were destroyed in the storm, which left 140,000 people dead or missing.
In Shaw Chaung, the villagers themselves and officials from Merlin and the United Nations Development Program have pumped out ponds three or four times, but the water remains contaminated by salt.
Even the military government, which has been heavily criticized for its response to the disaster, including its tight restrictions on foreign aid groups, admits that a lack of clean water is a major problem.
“Many survivors remain vulnerable, especially in terms of continued access to clean water, adequate shelter and restoring livelihoods,” it said recently in a joint post-disaster assessment with the U.N. and Association of South East Asian Nations.
The same assessment said that in all, almost 1 million people in the delta had received food aid and 1.7 million people had been reached by some form of “emergency shelter assistance.”
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson